The energy you put in is the energy you get out


You don’t get it. Damn, I don’t really get it; none of us gets it. But more on that later.

We were on a road trip last week and during one of those long dark stretches in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep but me, I tuned in to a radio episode of ‘Living on Earth.’ The thing that caught my attention was the phrase “the [US] military is the biggest consumer of oil in the country…” and it wants to get off foreign oil.

To help facilitate that, there’s a line in a bill presently before the House of Representatives that would allow the US Department of Defense to purchase any amount of alternative fuel for the armed forces—no matter what its effect on the environment.

Apparently the magic bullet is something called “liquid coal,” a fossil fuel replacement for oil, diesel and gasoline. And the US military target is to have fully 50 percent of its fuel supplied by alternatives by the year 2020 (which is only nine years away). That’s a rapid transition. So why the rush?

Checking out a dude named Albert A. Bartlett, a retired physics prof. from the University of Colorado, might help. He has a great little presentation you can find on YouTube about exponential growth and what that means for the future of our oil and coal reserves. He looks at the existing data on the remaining supplies of fossil fuels and, using simple exponential math, shows that the world is going to run out of oil more or less completely within 40 years, and if we turn to coal we’ll burn through that in just 95 years.

So getting back to the US military, I think they ‘get it’—as their desire to switch to alternatives clearly shows. And they also get the urgency. In order to “protect” the world’s remaining oil supplies, the US armed forces, and in particular the Navy need to have a secure source of alternative fuel to keep the war machine going. And that means converting the abundant reserves of West Virginia and Montana coal to liquid fuel as soon as possible.

This is not new technology. The Germans started converting solid coal to liquid fuel in the 1920s and completely depended on the technology during the Second World War when conventional oil supplies were unavailable.

And now the same coal conversion is about to be used by the United States, which peaked its domestic oil production in the early 1970s and has experiencing declining national oil reserves ever since. In short, the US is almost out of gas and is almost entirely dependent on foreign resources to keep its military and its economy running—unless it switches to alternatives, big time, soon.

If I were going to trust anyone about oil availability, security and the future of gasoline, I guess I’d have to trust the US military.

Coincidentally, I noticed a funny thing as we drove across the Northern Ontario wilderness. All those huge steel and fiberglass satellite dishes have disappeared—and a lot of them have been replaced by solar panels. I don’t just mean a few little panels on the occasional roof; I mean big 20- and 30-foot panels standing in arrays in fields.

Another thing I caught—on the radio again—was a news report about a new wind farm being planned for a mountain range along the northern shores of Lake Superior. And it looks as if this project might actually happen. Some paradigm has obviously shifted in the wilderness. People on the frontier are waking up to the new post-fossil fuel reality and are beginning to do something about it.

But here’s what I don’t get—hell, what we all don’t get. It’s the actual amount of energy we’ll have to “find” to replace fossil fuel. I’ve written about this before. But as I drove through the night I thought about it again. Like, how much energy is there in a gallon of gas? (Sorry metric folks, this is easier in Imperial.)

A standard SUV gets about 25 miles per gallon, tops. But what does that mean? What it means is that the one gallon of gas can move a 4000 lb. piece of machinery 25 miles in less than half an hour.

In human terms that’s the same as moving 20 big men (200-lb. men) 25 miles. Now, if those big guys walked at 2.5 miles per hour, it would take them 10 hours to get as far down the road as that one gallon of gas. That’s a staggering (20 x 200 x 10 =) 40,000 multiplier.

In terms of the human lifespan, if we only used one gallon of gas a day and lived until we were 80, we would have extended our time on the planet to (80 x 365 x 40,000 =) 1.168 billion years—each. Now, wrap your head around that. Really. And what does that mean as the world approaches 7 billion people and the developing world is rapidly adopting our fossil-fuelled lifestyle…? Talk about exponential impact.

But reconsider, just so you’ll get it for real. You’re living a life that, in terms of the energy at your disposal, would only be possible to your primitive ancestor if he or she lived to be more than a billion years old! Do we get it yet? (I’m not sure anyone could get the enormity of that.)

Now, do you think our current, cautious government “energy policies” are up to replacing that kind of energy deficit as we run out of gas? Care to bet your grandkid’s future on that, Minister Leonard*?

*Craig Leonard is the New Brunswick Conservative Minister of Energy.


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