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Page added on October 31, 2011

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Fossil Fuels as the Whale Oil of the Future

Fossil Fuels as the Whale Oil of the Future thumbnail

Amory B. Lovins, the longtime efficiency guru, has a new book out that analyzes the possibility of converting the nation to almost total reliance on renewable sources of energy. The conclusions may not win instant acceptance, but it is certainly in the running for the best-blurbed energy book of the year.

Chelsea Green Publishing

“Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era” carries a quote on the cover from Bill Clinton, who says it is a “wise, detailed and comprehensive blueprint.” Both Marvin Odum, the president of Shell Oil, and John W. Rowe, the chairman and chief executive of Exelon, wrote forewords..

Released at an event on Thursday morning at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, the book credits both Mr. Lovins, a physicist, and staff members of his Rocky Mountain Institute as authors.

Mr. Lovins has long argued that the world should pay more attention to efficiency and that it has prospered when it has done so.

He gives the example of pumping water from a pipe; if the power plant that supplies the electricity starts with 100 units of energy, it will lose two-thirds of that in making the current and another 10 percent in transmission and distribution. The motor will be only 90 percent efficient; so pumps, motors, drive trains and throttling valves along the way will lose more, leaving the plant with 93 units of energy.

One argument advanced in his book is that renewable energy is already cheaper than fossil fuels, which he describes as “ancient pond scum.”

One reason is that the price is fixed, Mr. Lovins says. A company that set out to hedge the future price of, say, gasoline by buying financial instruments to assure a fixed cost in the future will spend $2.95 a gallon to do so for the next five years, he writes.

That’s just for the insurance policy on the price, not for the gasoline itself, he said in a telephone interview. “The volatility imposes risk on a business, and risk means cost,’’ he said. “You can’t plan sensibly if you’re whipsawed by prices bouncing all over the place.”

Renewable energy, on the other hand, is riskless, he said, because once the project is built, the energy costs are fixed. His analysis predicts further declines in prices for renewables.

And just as whale oil for home lighting was supplanted by kerosene and then by the electric light, fossil fuels are about to be replaced by renewables, Mr. Lovins predicts.

Wind power is already cheaper than power from natural gas, even at today’s depressed natural gas prices, he contends. But the electric system will have to adapt to use it.

The book is a broad look at buildings, transportation, the electric system and industrial energy use. In the interview, Mr. Lovins paraphrased a saying attributed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower: that if a problem seems to have no solution, the best approach is to enlarge it.

For example, he said, if the electricity system finds it challenging to run on energy from the wind and sun, which cannot be scheduled by system controllers, the solution is to combine the electricity and transportation systems, hooking up millions of car batteries that can deliver energy as well as accept it.


4 Comments on "Fossil Fuels as the Whale Oil of the Future"

  1. blacknail on Mon, 31st Oct 2011 6:09 pm 

    Isn’t the solution to just run processes when the energy is available, not as easy, but way more efficient.

  2. Kenz300 on Mon, 31st Oct 2011 6:50 pm 

    Quote — ” Renewable energy, on the other hand, is riskless, he said, because once the project is built, the energy costs are fixed. His analysis predicts further declines in prices for renewables.”
    The cost of oil, coal and nuclear are rising while the cost for wind and solar are decreasing. It is time to transition to the energy sources of the future. The world produces a lot of trash every day. That trash can now be turned into both fuel and energy. The risk to the economy is too great to rely solely on fossil fuels.

  3. Btritt on Tue, 1st Nov 2011 2:55 am 

    Transition ONLY works when the transition is to something better (more concentrated). Any transition from oil is regressive, to something worse (less concentrated). The is no way in Hell that wind or solar or bio-fuels can ever replace a significant percentage of current energy needs, not to mention actually growing our energy supply. But then, reality is not a part of the ‘Renewable” crowd. They cannot believe that their world of cheap, plentiful energy is going the way of whale oil.

  4. sunweb on Tue, 1st Nov 2011 9:02 am 

    Once again, I post this for these who have not seen it.


    The renewable energy crowd creates a dangerous illusion. The illusion that middle class life can continue at some level of luxury and ease all over the world. That electricity for motors, electronics and lights will be available continually. That using “renewable” energy, we are not assaulting the earth’s resources and other life forms. That because it is “renewable”, it is clean and green. That because it is “sustainable”, it can go on indefinitely.

    This belief that so-called renewables can replace fossil fuels does not look at the total process. To create the devices that capture the sun or wind, we use fossil fuels and toxic chemicals to mine, process, fabricate, manufacture and transport materials. The earth is gouged, rivers polluted, and air sullied. Given the amount and type of energy needed to get the end product, these devices are not renewable or green or clean or environmentally safe or sustainable.

    From: The Renewable Illusion

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