Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Plug It In

Encouraging news on the alternative energy front. James Woolsey, former director of the CIA, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is predicting "major progress toward independence, spurred by market forces and a portfolio of rapidly developing oil-replacing technologies." He explains that the development of alternative liquid fuels is getting a boost, as scientific leaps are changing the fuel production boundaries. Among other advances, new biotechnologies are making it possible to produce ethanol from a wide range of plants other than corn. This is an improvement because growing corn is a very land and fuel intensive process, which limits corn's potential ability to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. With scientific advances, allowing more fuel production from much less land and far less fuel used in the growing process, production costs for ethanol are declining, and our capacity to produce enough quantities of alternative fuels to be a meaningful challenge to the global supremacy of petroleum-based energy is increasing. This is good news for the new year. I don't think there are many of us who don't see the advantages of a "grow-it-yourself" fuel supply, both for assuring adequate energy resources here at home, and limiting the influence of the often despotic regimes that always seem to be the ones in control of the oil reserves abroad.

Of course, we've seen promises about alternative fuels for years, and the oil producers of the world have had a few tricks up their sleeves. OPEC has driven down prices in the past, effectively driving the competition out of business. Woolsey says this time OPEC may not be able to stifle innovation by lowering oil prices:

The change is being driven by innovations in the batteries that now power modern electronics. If hybrid gasoline-electric cars are provided with advanced batteries (GM's announcement said its choice would be lithium-ion) having improved energy and power density--variants of the ones in our computers and cell phones--dozens of vehicle prototypes are now demonstrating that these "plug-in hybrids" can more than double hybrids' overall (gasoline) mileage. With a plug-in, charging your car overnight from an ordinary 110-volt socket in your garage lets you drive 20 miles or more on the electricity stored in the topped-up battery before the car lapses into its normal hybrid mode. If you forget to charge or exceed 20 miles, no problem, you then just have a regular hybrid with the insurance of liquid fuel in the tank. And during those 20 all-electric miles you will be driving at a cost of between a penny and three cents a mile instead of the current 10-cent-a-mile cost of gasoline.
All of this would have the added advantage, according to Woolsey, of reducing vehicle carbon emissions by 60%, as well. Read the rest. It's a good start to the new year.

Hat tip: Instapundit

Note: The info about reduced carbon emissions reminded me that I wanted to pass on a link to a book I read online a couple of weeks ago. I didn't even have to go to the library. I just turned on my laptop and read the whole thing. The book is Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Michael Flynn, and it was completely enjoyable from this sci fi fan's perspective. It's set in the not-so-distant future, when the "green" movement has taken the reins of power, and dramatically changed the world's energy usage. Problem is, it turns out the only thing preventing the start of another ice age was the presence of all those greenhouse gasses coming from the Earth's infestation of humanity!! With the carbon emissions virtually eliminated, the ice age cometh. Science fiction, by the way, is now illegal, and the Earth's governments are at war with "inappropriate technology," including the space stations still orbiting the planet, and their inhabitants. It's a totally fun read, complete with underground sci fi conventions, government goons, and corn genetically-altered to grow plastic. I'd say it was a page-turner, but since I read it online, I guess I'll have to say it was a "scroller" instead. It's lame, but that's the best I could come up with. Oh well.