Nuclear, Wind, and Solar replacing oil

I keep hearing talk about getting off of foreign oil and replacing it with all these alternatives, but I have to ask a simple question.

I thought that when it came to our energy needs, we used oil to make gasoline to fuel automobiles. How is a nuclear power plant, windmill, or solar panels going to do that? I guess maybe if you strapped the panels on top of a vehicle I could see that as a possibility.

And yes, I know we’re looking into things like ethanol, which actually makes sense to me.

The short answer is that almost all forecasters expect that the era of gasoline fueled autos is growing to a close. Electric, hydrogen, fuel cell, or other technologies will replace the gas engine. Most of these will at some point in their cycle require energy off the electric grid. Therefore a huge increase in power production will be necessary. The source of that power needs to be clean, and that’s why wind, solar, and nuclear are mentioned. Coal and natural gas can also be clean power, but those are also non-renewable resources so they don’t make for as pretty a future, even though they undoubtedly will be a big part of reality.

Ethanol actually makes very little sense at the current time. I think it will be a small player compared to the others. Again, the transition will be messy and ethanol will have a role. We’ll see lots of technologies competing. Nothing is as simple and convenient and cheap as gas.

The biggest problem is that batteries and fuel cells aren’t good enough to make real, all-electric cars a practical option. If they were, then nuclear would be an obvious solution to our reliance on fossil fuels because it would replace gasoline as well as coal (what we largely burn for electricity in this country). (Note that gasoline isn’t the only thing we use oil for. However, the plastics, lubricants, and fertilizer industries aren’t as bad for the environment, as I understand it.)

As things stand now, however, we can’t fully move away from internal-combustion engines yet, so there’s a debate over what is the best thing to burn. Despite the protestations of corn-state senators, however, ethanol isn’t the salvation of mankind.

The idea would be that during the day, the solar cells on your roof would generate hydrogen via electrolysis to fill up your hydrogen powered car.

One of the main problems, particularly with solar power is storage, even if you could run a car on it, what’s the point if you can only drive in daylight?

So another technology needs to evolve in parallel.

Another thing that may be feasible, assuming global co-operation is possible is using HVDC lines to transfer power in a global network with rectifiers at each end. HVDC does not suffer from the losses that HVAC does.

China has a range of HVDC power lines and I believe we (the UK) have a link to Northern Europe or Scandinavia.

Of course this doesn’t hlp in running a car, but it does for the power needs of the country/world as a whole.

Wait, wait, wait. Motor vehicles aren’t the only thing we use power for. All the power we use in factories, homes, electric rail lines, etc does not involve vehicles. And much of it currently is created with coal and other greenhouse gas emitters. Plus, some of it actually does use petroleum products, so eliminating that useage relieves pressure on the vehicular use.

The gasoline issues are important, and I wish I could buy a rechargeable car for my needs, but it’s not the only thing.

I was under the impression that, when it came to fuel (I’m excluding things such as making plastic) we used it more for automobiles (at least here in America) than anything else, and switching cars to something other than gasoline would be what’s needed to help end our dependence of foreign oil.

Since this is GQ, what is the breakdown, here in America, of the percentage of oil use for:

  1. Power plant use (Generating power for buildings and such)
  2. Refined into gasoline.
  3. (If you feel like it) non energy uses, like making plastic

partial answer:

In the United States alone, buildings account for:
• 72% of electricity consumption,
• 39% of energy use,
• 38% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions,
• 40% of raw materials use,
• 30% of waste output (136 million tons annually), and
• 14% of potable water consumption.

Wow, I was unaware of how much it was used in creating electricity.

So, I wonder now if power companies were raising their rates at the price of gasoline went up. I mean, I never heard anything about it in the news. Fuel costs seemed to be the only thing reported in the news as going up and causing problems for everybody, especially the airline industry.

Yes. There are already electric cars and hydrogen cars out there, and the fuel cell technology (= burning hydrogen) is getting better and better.

As soon as the electricity comes free because of solar panels, that is, you don’t need to conserve it, you can use it all you want, even if the process is less efficient than oil, because with solar there is no penalty* involved.

  • meaning that you don’t have to pay money or energy to generate the fuel for the power plant, and you don’t produce any emissions while running the plant, so even if the process you are using the electricity for is only 10% effective, you simply let the power plant run 10 times longer.

“The short answer is that almost all forecasters expect that the era of gasoline fueled autos is growing to a close.”

I believe that the right answer is that’s not happening anytime soon.

So, knowing that we are going to have a hydrocarbon-based economy for some time, what can we do to make it cheaper and cleaner?

Pumping and refining more oil will help make it cheaper in one major respect-- the automotive and freight world runs on gasoline, and will run on gasoline for decades to come, so increasing the supply helps. Windmills, nuclear power, solar power, etc. won’t run cars, trucks, trains or shipping without massive increases in the efficiency and effectiveness of battery storage and recharging abilities.

We’ve talked about those efficiencies for decades. People have invested billions worldwide to get those efficiences. After all that effort. . . we’ve got a Prius. Which still uses gas, just less of it.

Changing the transportation infrastructure to adapt to anything other than fossil fuels will take more effort than anyone, including either candidate for U.S. president, is pleased to admit. Cars don’t run on wind. It’s not going to happen in ten years, and it probably won’t happen in twenty. It will happen, of course, but almost certainly not as the result of a government-run “Manhattan Project”-- it will instead require scientific advances and engineering progress that will rival those necessary to solve other “unsolvable” issues out there.

After all, we’ve had a War on Cancer for decades-- it’s made cancer more survivable, but it hasn’t cured it. Cure for AIDS? Not there yet. We’ve spent billions developing fusion power-- still not there yet. I expect the same fitful progress in transitioning from fossil fuels. And again, it’s not like we’re just starting to do this-- worldwide people, companies, and governments been making this effort for decades now.

Bottom line? You can’t legislate scientific discovery, or else we’d all be riding unicorns to work. Our energy needs to come from somewhere, and it’s prudent to plan for our need for hydrocarbons, and specifically oil, for decades to come. I’d argue that it’s irresponsible to assume otherwise.

Where do you get this from? First, electric and fuel cars are a working option - they are already driving around. Second, nuclear is not an obvious solution, because it has similar problems to oil and coal: you have to use money and energy to extract the fuel from the Earth and refine (enrich) it; and you cause pollution when running the plant.

The obvious solution is going electric wherever possible and producing that electricity by solar (with wind, geothermic and water to balance out fluctuations). The sun sends the whole world’s supply in energy down to Earth in just 8 minutes each day.

Don’t forget that what seems expensive today - the investment in a new car or solar cells - will become cheaper in the future compared to the rising prices for all oil-related things, while the sun doesn’t send a bill.

You have been misinformed. Plastics are useful in some areas, and that’s where a lot of oil can be used better than for driving cars; but a lot of plastic is wasted as trash, that can be easily stopped with avoiding and recycling (don’t use a plastic shopping bag, but a cloth one. And the manufacturers don’t have to wrap everything in hundred layers. Etc.)
As for fertilizer - the world, poor people and the enviroment would be far better off if we switched to organic farming that doesn’t need synthetic fertilisier (and no, this isn’t 50s style of “leaving everything out and the world will starve” organic farming. The latest meta-study from a university says that in the 3 world, harvests and profit for the farmers increases with organic farming; and the 1st world can easily shoulder a 70 % harvest compared to now. Nobody needs to starve.)

No, we can; the problem is that people don’t want it enough. They want it to be painless, which is impossible. Once the oil price is so high that the Holy Free Market can regulate it, Joe Average will stop driving because he can’t afford the gas anymore (as many people are already doing now) and will be stuck in the rural parts without an alternative car or public transport, because he didn’t want to pay the price for change now, or have the state intervene with laws and long-term plans that cost tax money.
Or we could change now to a long-term solution.

The next step from there is very easy: You put a plug on that Prius. Now, you can charge it overnight at home, or possibly at the office while you’re at work, and lo and behold, you are running your car on wind power. If you’re lucky, you live close enough to work that a single charge will get you to work and back, and you’re not using any gasoline at all. If you’re not so lucky, you might still be able to get, say, halfway on just battery power, and only have to use half as much gasoline as a normal Prius does now. Either way, you’re using a lot less gas, and it’s because of energy from windmills or nuclear or whatever.

What do you mean by “it”? If you’re referring to oil, nobody in this thread has given any numbers yet for electricity generation from oil, but it’s pretty low. Almost all of our electricity is generated from coal, hydroelectric, or nuclear.

The point is that nobody seriously says that (besides some sunny places like Hawaii or Arizona, where driving around in a solar-cell-covered car is feasible.)

That other technology is already here. It’s called a fuel cell. It burns hydrogen cleanly, which is produced cleanly by hydrolysis, made cleanly by electrictiy from solar cells.

The data in Key Lime Guy’s post is total energy for buildings, not petroleum consumption. There is actually very little petroleum used in electricity generation (about 1.6% of total electricity generation, per DOE Energy Information Administration data). Most of the petroleum consumption in the US is for transportation - of the 20.7 million barrels of oil used per day, 14.3 million are used for transportation. 294,000 are used for power generation, 1.1 million are used in residential and commercial sectors, and 5.1 million are used in the industrial sector.

So to displace imported oil, the most effective approach is to reduce transportation fuel consumption. As noted in the earlier posts, that will require (largely) conversion to electricity and alternative (non-petroleum) fuels. Ethanol isn’t the best approach, but it does significantly displace petroleum. Even though the net energy balance for corn ethanol is close to break-even, the energy inputs are mostly in the form of natural gas or coal rather than petroleum, so a gallon of ethanol can displace somewhere around 2/3 of a gallon of gasoline (taking into account the different energy contents of ethanol and gasoline).

In the long term, I agree that we will be looking at either electric vehicles (probably for passenger cars) and biofuels for heavier vehicles, railroads, and perhaps aircraft. My prediction is that in 10 years, the focus will be on biomass-to-hydrocarbons rather than biomass-to-alcohol.

Oops, I misread a prior post.:o

But I’ll ask again, if we primarily use oil to make gasoline, why are we so intent on alternative energies that have nothing to do with gasoline? In other words, if oil isn’t really used that much for generating power to homes and other buildings, how will switching to nuclear, wind, or solar change anything that much?

When it comes to electric cars, it seems more logical to just build more car recharging stations. Work on the infrastructure for that. That would be the quickest way to start getting us away from gasoline fueled cars. And we don’t even need to wait for nuclear, wind, or solar either. We could be doing this now.

Actually, I guess I’d better stop. My comments are getting into IMHO, MPSIMS, or even Great Debate territory.

There’s two different (though related) issues, here: Energy independence and greenhouse gas. The energy sources we use for electricity generation are abundant in the US, so alternative electricity generation methods (wind, nuclear, etc.) won’t do much for energy independence, at least not right away (though it will become relevant once we start getting alternative-energy cars on the road). On the other hand, coal (currently the bulk of our electrical generation) is actually worse than petroleum products when it comes to greenhouse emissions, so wind and nuclear power will help significantly with that problem.

There’s nothing that says that we have to do one thing at a time. Wind power, nuclear power, and electric cars are all somewhat practical already, and are continually getting more practical. Further, wind power and electric cars actually complement each other quite nicely: The biggest drawback of wind power is that occasionally the wind dies down, so you need to store the power when the wind is blowing to use it when it’s not. But you need to have a battery or the equivalent in an electric car, anyway, so you can just plug your car into your windmill overnight, and as long as it’s not calm all night long, you’ll get the energy you need for your car before you go back to work. So it may actually be easier to work on wind power and electric cars together than it would be to do either separately.

I’m just saying that we can start working on electric cars (biodiesel, or whatever) independently of whatever we settle on for electricity production.

Well, yeah, but who said anything different?

It’s simply not true that anybody, well anybody knowledgeable about the subject, talks about replacing foreign oil with wind, solar, and nuclear. They talk about two major, somewhat interrelated issues. Getting off foreign oil. (Really, getting off all oil. Oil is a global commodity. Where it’s produced is not as important as not using what is produced.) And making power plants cleaner. That can be done in a dozen different ways, not just wind, solar, and nuclear. We’ll see clean coal and natural gas long before that happens, because there are huge problems with wind, solar, and nuclear that will take decades to solve. I’m far more pessimistic than Chronos on this. We’ve made tiny steps in the direction we need to go but we’re nowhere near mass quantities.

As Chronos implied, you’re conflating two separate issues. Except for a few holdout skeptics, most scientists, manufacturers, and businesses agree that global warming is man made and is a significant danger. And a growing number of scientists think that the era of cheap, easily available oil is also growing to a close. (I used that phrase earlier and I thought it was clear that growing to a close is a phrase indicating a process that will play out over decades. But since everything else we’re talking about will have serious effects over decades rather than centuries it’s something to start thinking about yesterday, not sometime in the future.)

For both reasons, along with the way that oil prices can so quickly spike, the need to reduce the excessive amount of gas automobiles use is critical.

What does this have to do with building power plants? Except for the electric car issue, very little. Power plants also contribute to global warming, even though very few of them in the U.S. run on oil. But each year we build larger houses and larger stores. We run more air conditioning. We have more boxes in our houses that use more electricity. The population is growing and is expected to increase by another 100,000,000 by 2050. Our current electric grid cannot possibly handle predicted future use. And it needs to become greener. And we have to figure out ways to transmit all that new power to where it’s needed, even though building the giant power lines is opposed by current homeowners almost everywhere. So that’s also an action that has to be started yesterday.

So yes we are doing everything simultaneously. We darn well better be. But these are just pieces of an even huger puzzle that encompasses a transformation of everything in the global economy over the rest of the century.

Reread what I said: real, all-electric cars. That means no combustion of any sort. Batteries and fuel cells aren’t there yet.

But nuclear plants are much cleaner than both coal and oil plants. For example, nuclear plants release less radiation into the environment than coal plants. High-level waste is produced in small amounts and low-level waste is relatively easy to dispose of.

That wouldn’t even cover the base load. Solar and wind are variable based on both season and time of day, and we’ve maxed out our geothermal and hydroelectric capabilities on this continent. Nuclear is the only kind of base load plant that doesn’t put tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Possibly true but irrelevant. Solar cells in the real world are less than 10% efficient (the very best real-world cells are around 20%) and putting them everywhere is both expensive and a terrible use of the land.

I’d like to see a cite that we could stop using fertilizer entirely and still feed the world.