Alternative Energy Sources: How Long?

How long would it take to virtually eliminate our dependence on oil?

By “virtually eliminate” I don’t mean that all oil drilling would stop and nobody would ever buy another barrel of oil again. I mean that the nature of energy needs in the world would change such that oil is a much less significant part of the equation. How much money would be needed for the research? How long before we made a serious dent in oil consumption if we funded the research to the hilt?

I imagine it would go something like this: The President (probably not the current one) presents a budget calling for an unprecedented amount of money for research into the hard science of clean, renewable, inexpensive energy production. Over the next several years, as new developments are made, oil and fossil fuel consumption gradually goes down. Some energy is supplied by solar, some by wind, some by water, etc. Remember that the money is buying innovation. The research is constantly making energy production by these means more efficient and problem-free.

We learn things. People come up with new and better ideas. Eventually, we build a fusion power plant on the moon that makes batteries for 100% electric cars. The Space Elevator makes this extremely practical, as there would be no more need for launches from Earth.

I’m getting ahead of myself here. The topic is, how much money and how long? If tomorrow, George W. Bush announced that, due to both environmental and national security concerns, the elimination of our dependence on oil and fossil fuels would be the top priority of his administration (stop laughing) what kind of budget and timeline are we looking at?

Well let’s start with a flat tax of say…90%

I don’t really have a straight answer for you and certainly no figures, but it would be possible to start tomorrow with existing technology. Just how long it would take would mainly depend upon just how much pain you country is prepared to go through.

Do you mean imported oil, all oil or all fossil fuels in general?

The first thing to do would be to reduce consuption of oil. Simple measure such as much smaller, less powerful and more efficient cars and vehicles would result in a dramatic drop in consuption.

The you need an alternative energy source. The precise choice of ‘fuel’ does not really matter to much provided it is efficiently produced; the real problem is that you must have a source of energy.

It is perfectly possible to sythesis fuels from coal as the Germans had to in WWII.

By far the quickest route alternative supplies of energy would be conventional nuclear power. A massive program of nuclear power plant building would, I guess, take about 10 years to come fully on stream.

Less conventional alternative can make a contribution, but still need a lot of development. Wind turbines are pretty good these days and are starting to compete with coal for cost.

By the way, I should clarify that I am not deluding myself that this could be accomplished during one administration. I’m wondering what our prospects will be like for twenty or thirty years in the future.

This is probably too broad and difficult to answer definitively. Where do you draw the line to say you have ‘reached’ your goal? Who can know every hurdle that will need to be overcome and put a price on it?

Also, oil is used for much more than just running your car (plastics for instance). The reason we still rely so heavily on oil is that it is incredibly cheap. Being so cheap here is how it will really happen:

In 30 years (give or take) the oil supplies will start running low. As in any supply and demand scheme rarity equates to price. The more rare the more expensive. Once the price rises sufficiently other, alternative sources of power will become more viable. Once money starts flowing to those things research and progress will be made on those items resulting in ever increasing efficiency and/or value.

In under twenty years, the average passenger car sold will probably not run on fossil fuels. That’s the best I can give you right now.

Fusion is the holy grail of energy prodction.

Well, Galahad found the Holy Grail at the castle Anthrax, and the french already had a holy grail.

Cite? :slight_smile:

Cite (NOTE: PDF file…you need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it)

If you search around you’ll find different answers to this question which is why I said “30 years (give or take)”.

It’s not as if the oil wells will all come to a screeching halt all at once. They won’t…it’ll taper off. If you look at page 3 of my link you’ll see a graph showing the fall off in oil production. By 2030 many of the world’s current oil producers will have fallen off the production list. The graph predicts production out to 2100 but at maybe 5% of today’s levels. I think around 2030 or so the owrld will start to noticeably feel the effects (higher prices mostly) of decreased oil production.

I don’t think it’s a technological hurdle but a cultural one. We could grow our fuel with simple corn (which would reduce our dependance on oil but we’d still use “gas”).

If you mean renewable as in solar-type energy I doubt it. Unless some rather drastic advances come to light with battery systems, a car with a range of 100 miles isn’t really good enough.

We have the technology for hydrogen, solar, steam, and probably nuclear cars within our hands. Only question is, who’s going to buy it?

The whole point of this thread is that “drastic advances” don’t just fall out of the sky. Tireless research discovers ways in which natural phenomenae can be exploited for beneficial ends.

One problem, I suppose, is that it would require us to make some sacrifices, and we don’t do that. We’re Americans. We don’t conserve, we consume. We don’t deny ourselves anything. You can hardly blame us, though. Everything here is just so damn available, isn’t it?

Well, what I ment was those advances require the cultural pressure to actually get developed and used. I also mentioned that a lot of the technology is already available.

It’s a catch 22 for us to actually start using these available technologies. For instance hydrogen cars. It’s possible, but without the fueling stations for them, we can’t get any cars on the street. Without cars on the street we can’t have hydrogen stations. Without a huge inital push, no one’s going to buy a $250,000 car, and no business will be able to get going until people start to buy them to the point where they become cheaper and profitable to sell.

If there was a sudden need to switch, I could see everything changed over in 1 generation of cars. If the govenment really pushed, and there was a huge need, we could all switch to bio gas/diesel (very quickly) and then get a big leap to hydrogen (a little slower). If I had the money my next car (the car I have now is new) would be alternatively fueled if it had the range of gas and didn’t cost a half million bucks.

We could be completely off of imported oil and on our way to energy independence in a decade if we would embrace nuclear power. With nuclear generated electricity as a base, you could go to hydrogen powered vehicles and maintain most of our existing infrastructure as is (meaning you wouldn’t have to convice Americans to give up their cars, start riding trains and build huge mass transit systems everywhere). We could probably do this with coal power as well, the US has HUGE deposits of coal… I personally think it would destroy the global environment to do so. If technology matures for fusion or ultra-efficient photovoltaics they could be adopted into our energy system gradually as they become cost effective… but with todays technology… nuclear is the way to go.

But how do we cure the public of its’ nuclear-phobia?

I agree that pushing nuclear for generating electricity is the way to go, given the current state of things. Pushing distributed production with rooftop solar panels or wind turbines in rural areas would go a good distance towards lowering residential demand as well. I believe both technologies are near cost effective in their current incarnations, but the capital startup costs tend to be prohibitive.

Automotive fuel consumption could probably be cut in half almost overnight by pushing people really hard to buy vehicles at the top end of the efficiency scale. Much higher taxes on fuel and inefficient vehicles ought to do the trick.

These two steps carried out globally would probably give us over a century of oil supplies instead of a few decades, and with any luck we’d have fusion by then and energy sources would no longer be a problem.

I don’t know how to cure the public’s nucleophobia, though. Education, maybe, but people seem to believe what they want to believe about reactors.

So, is the contention that nuclear power is actually clean and safe? My understanding was that properly working nuclear reactors are safe, but if something goes wrong, it makes the surrounding area unsafe to live in for years afterward. Am I correct about this? If so, then perhaps the solution is to work on technology that would make meltdowns and such either extremely unlikely or more manageable and containable when they do happen?

Is there justification for “nuclearphobia”, or is it the same as irradiated foods, where people just refuse to believe that it’s safe despite the complete lack of evidence that it’s harmful?

There are several designs for ‘inherently safe’ nuclear reactors (such as the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor [PBMR]). Usually the worst thing that can happen to a nuclear reactor is a disruption of the coolant flowing to the reactor which can lead to a meltdown ala Cernobyl or Three Mile Island. The new designs are ‘inherently safe’ because presumably natural physical processes will kick in to limit the reaction no matter what you try to do to the core. They essentially moderate themselves internally without outside intervention.

While the new designs certainly seem an improvement and much safer it is human nature to find ways no one ever thought of to screw-up so personally I wouldn’t give them a 100% NOTHING can ever go wrong report card but conversely I would feel safe enough having one a few blocks from where I live too.

The real problem with these guys is the waste. PBMR’s supposedly are ‘better’ about their waste product than current reactors but that is a relative assessment. The real Holy Grail in power production of course is fusion. Hugely abundant fuel available and the waste product is easily dealt with. Unfortunately it seems to be 30 years off till we get it working and worse…they have been saying it is 30 years off now for some 30 years.

Nuclear Power is clean and safe. The number one problem with nuclear power in the U.S. is that every single reactor is unique and custom made. If the country would just adopt a single or even a few standardized well tested designs incorporating the newest technology, I think the possibilities for catastrophic accidents would plunge to almost nil. As has been said in this thread there are new designs which more or less make a meltdown scenario physically impossible. With today’s system you have reactors using 30 and 40 year old technology, uniquely designed so if there IS ever a problem the technicians and emergency teams have to study that one design to find the problem and contain the situation and every different plant has it’s own possibility for design flaws.If we had a standardized design, it would greatly simplify our emergency responses and make improving and upgrading cost effective and universal. People HAVE to be educated about what nuclear power IS and is not, how far the technology has advanced, the pros and cons versus other energy sources and given real statistics about fatalities associated with nuclear versus other energy sources. The waste problem also has to be dealt with… and in my book it doesn’t even have to be a perfect solution, just a decisive one. Anything we put into place would be preferrable to the situation we have today where waste is stored on site.

Here’s a reason why I am wary of nuclear fuels. The experience in Ontario is that it’s incredibly costly and unreliable (which means you have to burn fossil fuels when they’re not working, which isn’t much of a solution), not to mention the ‘what happens to the radioactive waste’ and the ‘what if something goes wrong’ issues. I’m not saying that nuclear energy isn’t a possibility, it’s just that I’d rather we not focus all our efforts on it.

Here is a list of sites which address the issue of green energy, including discussions on why nuclear energy isn’t the solution, other forms of green energy (wind, solar, biofuels etc), household energy production etc.

I agree with badmana that (a) the hurdles are largely cultural and (b) we already have a lot of the technology we need. If we insist on driving our kids to school every morning, driving to work alone, and driving to the shop to buy a pack of cigarettes (and if our cities continue to be designed in a way which necessitates this), we will always have a massive energy demand that will be very hard to meet without oil.

Another cultural factor is the influence of people who profit off of oil, which cannot be ignored. From the automakers to OPEC, they aren’t going to let their profits go without a fight.This is an article by Bob Hunter, co-founder of Greenpeace, on the subject. Please try to ignore his slightly hysterical rhetoric, he makes a very valid point.

I’d also like to point out that oil is not our only problem. If we reduce our reliance on it, but maintain our otherwise unsustainable lifestyle, I don’t think we’ll be any better off. We’ll still be destroying land to make roads, producing unrecyclable waste, consuming other non-renewable resources, etc. The (potential) looming oil crisis is a great opportunity for us to rethink a lot of our habits: let’s not think about energy alternatives without also thinking about lifestyle alternatives.

What happens if we ‘solve’ the oil crisis, find a perfect alternative, and then run out of clean water?