Why Is There So Much Tribalism In Alternative Fuels? There Are 39 Trillion Reasons (Part 1 Of 2)

Someone asked me recently why there is so much controversy and tribalism about alternative fuels and that is a fair question. After all, economics, chemistry, physics, and transition efforts clearly support electrification of anything electrifiable, biofuels for the bulk, and hydrogen and synthetic fuels in a handful of niches. But the world is more chaotic than the laws of thermodynamics, and so there are proponents of five major fuel paths.

As someone who has spent inordinate amounts of time evaluating, posting, and expert-level discussions evaluating transportation and fuel paths, I have an informed opinion.

The primary ways people argue about future energy needs for transport and heating for households and industry are fossil fuels with CO2 capture, electricity, biofuels, hydrogen and synthetic fuels.

Fossil fuels

Let’s start with the established fossil fuels. This is what we use today because millions of years ago nature kindly did most of the heavy lifting, turning matter into energy dense substances that are convenient to use.

Obviously the problem is the negative external effects of fossil fuels. These include:

  • CO2
  • Laughing gas (N20) with a global warming potential of 265x that of CO2
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a chemical precursor to smog
  • particulate matter
  • unburned hydrocarbons, also known as black carbon, with a global warming potential of a thousand times that of CO2
  • Sulfur from coal and bunker fuel for ships
  • Mercury from coal that bioaccumulates

There are still a great many people and organizations who claim that these negative externalities make up for the benefits of fossil fuels. With the future profits of the fossil fuel industry estimated at $ 39 trillion in 2018 by the World Bank, they have a lot of money, a lot of influence, and a lot of people who depend on them for a living.Voice is huge and obviously a major source of man-made disagreement and doubt.

Diagram showing the extent of the CO2 problem compared to CCS by author

And then there is carbon capture, use and sequestration (CCUS). I created this bubble chart over a few iterations to illustrate the magnitude of the excess CO2 problem versus the magnitude of the CCUS. What is not shown here, since it is buried in the invisible point, is that more than a third of the CCUS is made up of improved oil production, which produces more net CO2 than the bill of sequestration, and that all of the CO2 is made up for that purpose The oil is pumped in a shell game that attracts massive state generosity in multiple jurisdictions, pushed underground in one place and down in another.

As I wrote a few years ago, the 2-kilometer walls of 20-meter-tall, 3-meter-thick natural gas powered fans from direct air capture company Carbon Engineering have just one natural market, improved oil production, and that’s in in fact only where they are used. They get $ 250 for every ton of CO2 they pump underground, even though they generate a third of that ton of CO2 from the natural gas they use in the process.

I’ve researched CCUS extensively, hoping to find anything that can be done even remotely, and for the most part, frankly, I’ve found far less than nothing. The world’s billions in 50 years would have been spent much better on wind and solar energy instead.

But the fossil fuel industry has its hands on this state generosity and is being handed billions more in multiple jurisdictions to continue doing next to nothing and delaying government action.

We can’t go on burning fossil fuels and solving the climate crisis, but that’s a difficult message for people, especially when there are $ 39 trillion reasons not to listen.

electricity

The second is electricity. Electricity is incredibly useful because it is converted into either mechanical energy or heat with very high efficiency. The direct use from its generation sources is one of the most efficient and effective methods of energy supply that we have. It is only more expensive than using dirt cheap fossil fuels if we can dispose of all fossil fuel waste cheaply and not price the negative externalities. 99.9% of stationary land-based energy consumers can be easily connected to the grid and sufficient energy is provided for the purposes. Aluminum is produced using electricity. Electric steel minimills run on electricity. Lithium-ion batteries have sufficient energy density to achieve a range comparable to that of cars with internal combustion engines, etc.

Electricity can be easily produced through several routes, including steam cycle heat engines, Carnot cycle engines, and diesel cycle engines that use fossil fuels (or substitutes), or more directly by using renewable energy sources, including water (which lifts the atmosphere nicely) . a high kinetic energy position for us), wind (which makes the atmosphere nice and strong and predictable in many places) or sunlight (which is the real source of energy for all fossil fuels and renewable energies).

And electricity from renewable energies avoids 99.99% of the negative external effects of fossil fuels. It is efficient, effective, clean and cheaper than using fossil fuels when negative externalities are properly accounted for. In the end, it will be the cheapest and best form of new fuel, and it will be used for anything it can be used for, that is, but a handful of hard goals.

Renewable electricity threatens the fossil fuel industry’s $ 39 trillion annual profits as it replaces its products in power generation, industrial heating, home heating and most modes of transport. As a result, the fossil fuel industry is trying to stir up as much anti-renewable and anti-EV hype as possible.

Biofuels

The third is biofuels. They take advantage of similar benefits to fossil fuels in letting nature do most of the heavy lifting of accumulating energy in convenient forms so that we can process it into useful fuels. Modern biofuels use waste cellulose, i.e. the corn stalks, not the corn cobs, and the technology to ferment them into alcohol and chemical precursors to biodiesel and the like is very well understood and mature. They significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and will come closer to CO2 neutrality as the entire supply, processing and distribution chain will be decarbonised.

However, they still have negative externalities, just less of them. This subset of the negative externalities of fossil fuels includes:

  • CO2 (much less, but still there)
  • Laughing gas (N20) with a global warming potential of 265x that of CO2
  • Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a chemical precursor to smog
  • particulate matter
  • unburned hydrocarbons, also known as black carbon, with a global warming potential a thousand times greater than that of CO2 but typically less than bunker fuel

Biofuels also require us to plant and harvest large areas of crops. As a result, they compete for resources with our food supply. This is worrying given that around 38% of the world’s landmass is used for various agricultural flows, around a third of which is used as arable land. Due to the Green Revolution, we are producing more calories than the world needs from this agricultural land, but many people are still starving due to distribution problems, economic problems and waste. And in the past few decades we have lost 21% of the profits from agricultural innovation to climate change.

In view of the competition, biofuels should of course only be used where direct electrification is not possible. Using them as a heat source makes no sense if electricity could be used. Using them as fuel for transporting cars makes no sense in battery-powered electric vehicles, etc.

This limits biofuels to segments that are difficult to electrify, which are still sizeable. Long distance aviation and long distance sea shipping are tough goals. Both consume large amounts of energy, and that energy must be energy dense. Biofuels are an obvious substitute for kerosene for long-haul flights, and certified biofuels for jet aircraft have been around since around 2011. They are not used for cost reasons, since biofuels are again more expensive than fossil fuels, unless negative external effects are calculated. They’re an obvious substitute for bunker fuel for long-haul shipping, but are even more expensive.

So there are several points of contention surrounding biofuels. They do not eliminate a number of negative externalities. They compete with land use for agriculture, which upsets a lot of people. Meanwhile, giving subsidies to farmers for buying votes is a very old-fashioned road to rural power used by overwhelmingly conservative parties around the world, and corn ethanol biofuels have been big recipients of it. So many farmers love biofuels very much while others don’t. And of course, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t like biofuels because they’re replacing fossil fuels with plug-and-play replacements. Hence, the fossil fuel industry has a longstanding PR campaign against them. Of course, the engine manufacturers want to continue producing their engines without significant investment, and switching to biofuels, which require technical know-how to function, costs money, so they tend to advertise against biofuels as well.

So when it comes to biofuels, we have a lot of controversy in all directions from hunger-fighting organizations, farms, the fossil fuel industry and the people who advocate direct electrification.

So these are the big losers – fossil fuels – and the big winners – direct electrification and biofuels. In the next article I’ll cover two alternative fuels that will only play a marginal role in the future of energy and why there is so much energy behind them. Note: It’s the same $ 39 trillion worth of reasons.

Here are some of my publications and podcasts that analyze the subject in detail:

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