Fuel, Oil, Alternatives

In case you hadn’t noticed, gas prices are rising again. (Is it the dreaded “Father’s Day weekend?”) In my neck of the woods, the price of regular-grade gasoline is hovering right around $3. Here are some miscellaneous ramblings about gas, oil, alternative energy, and what I believe the only answer to our long-term energy needs (find out what I think that is below).

When I was a kid, my grandparent, with whom my mom and I lived, owned a gas station. Back then, they were called “service stations.” For 27 cents a gallon, you got your windows washed, your tires checked and even filled, your oil checked, other under-the-hood fluids checked and topped off…

Service was emphasized then. Gasoline (with lead!) was almost an after thought. Oh, it was “full service” too. You didn’t even have to get out of your car. And when you were ready to pay? The service station attendant took your money, went into the office, got your change and a receipt, and returned to offer you a heart-felt “Good-bye.”

And get this: If you paid by credit card, the price was the same! And the attendant would bring out a little machine that would take an impression of your credit card, ask for your signature, tear out a copy for you, and then — you were done!

My, have things changed. But unlike a lot of things, my gut tells me that things have gotten worse. There is no such thing as “full service.” (Even in states like Oregon, where an employee of the gas station has to pump your gas.)

Did you catch my reference to the price of a gallon of gasoline? 27 cents! With a lot of labor behind it.

Today, you pump your own gas and pretty much carry out the entire transaction without any other humans intervening. You wash your windows. Maybe.

Check the oil? Huh? Dipstick? What?!

Then, 1973 happened. My grandparents sold the station and set off on a journey across the USA. They got to Arizona (they lived in Northern California). My grandmothers kidneys failed, they came back, and she spent the next 5 years of her life tied to a dialysis machine 3 days a week, 4 hours at a pop. With numerous trips to the hospital.

I grew up, literally, inside and around a hospital. My grandparents, who had amassed a good sum of money the “old-fashioned” way (by the sweat of their brow and VERY frugal spending habits born out of the Great Depression), blew through their entire life savings in less than a year.

  • Hospitals can be expensive. Especially if you don’t have good insurance. They had Blue Cross, but it somehow still ate up all their money.

Anyway, the oil embargo should have been a sign of things to come. OPEC was, and still is, too powerful and ought to be illegal. Cartels are illegal here, but we, as a country, allow it and even embrace it.

Anybody ever tell you that the US and you in particular don’t support terrorists…you’re in denial.

You, out of necessity, give money to entities that really don’t have your interests at heart. Know what I mean? But I digress.

Nearly 40 years ago, we should have come up with a game plan to untether ourselves from black gold (aka oil). But we didn’t. Oil and gas prices declined and we started buying big American cars again. The late 70s saw the same thing recur.

Then again in the 80s. Now, it’s not so much OPEC as it is overwhelming demand coupled with a supply that is ever-dwindling. By the way, mining in Alaska may help. By less than 1 percent. Do the math: Gas is $3. You’ll save 3 cents, max. At the expense of spoiling yet another pristine part of the world.

Rising demand + Declining supply = Rising prices forever (all other things being equal)

It’s this “all other things being equal” part that is intriguing. By the way, this is how economists take really complex marketplace issues and boil them down into neat, easily-digestible “models” that work on paper but almost never in practice.

We can must change the “all other things being equal” part. There are substitutes in the marketplace for fuel. They’re right before our eyes. (Solar, wind, water, natural gas)

In addition, we’re using 100-year-old technology in gasoline-powered automobiles. The underlying construction of the gasoline engine is exactly the same as when Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry in the early 1900s. Nothing, really,  has changed.

Electric cars are far more “fuel-efficient” than gasoline-powered cars. After all, to charge your electric car battery, you have to plug it in to the power grid (a true solar-powered car most-likely will never occur, due to basic principles of physics — I cannot explain it here, but pick up a copy of Physics for Future Presidents).

Here’s a graphic illustrating the point:


As oil prices rise, so, too, does the disparity.

  • Funny thing is, a lot of electricity we get comes from a very readily and plentiful energy source: Natural gas. America is sitting on a LOT of natural gas!

Ultimately, of course, we get all of our energy from the sun, either directly or indirectly. But when somebody says, “solar,” what they mean is power right now from the sun. We immediately think of the solar panels that were put on rooftops in the 70s and 80s (mostly as tax write-offs — they never really worked).

Now, however, the technology exists to extract a greater percentage of the sun’s energy and convert it to electricity. The sticking points are always energy storage (aka batteries).

Battery technology and the complex electrical switching that must occur in order to make this uber-power a viable source has lagged behind the rest of the solar industry. But that’s changing.

Of course, there’s wind and water or hydro power that is available. If we could harness a small fraction of the earth’s wind power we could have all the electricity we ever needed. Or harness the incredible power of the — get this — lunar power!

That’s right. The moon, which makes the tides, could be the source of our power! If only we could put giant turbines in the oceans…and reverse the power flow on opposite sides of the tides (generate power on rising and falling tides)…

I think we’re almost there, from a “can we do it” perspective. The rest is all political. Unfortunately, “the rest” is probably 90 percent of the problem; it’s most likely insurmountable.

Same goes for nuclear. It’s a phenomenal technology, considerably safer than it was in the 70s and 80s. But nobody here is willing to put a reactor in his backyard (NIMBY, or Not in My Back Yard).

So, I’ve said all that to say all this:

We need a new perspective.

What worked decades ago may not. Things change. So should we.

With any revolution, change doesn’t come in waves; rather, it comes slowly. It’s like the “Overnight Sensation” that took 20 years of blood, sweat, and tears to make it “over night.”

Problem is, we should have started taking the “baby steps” we needed to take several decades ago. I’m not going to suggest that “it’s too late,” but it is certainly disconcerting how we seem to have shown up to a party that dismantled years ago. The guest of honor has died, the cake is rancid, and the presents are all broken and used up.

Sorry, my “glass half-empty” persona sneaked out.

We can make this happen. I think we will — collectively — succeed. Our very survival depends on it.

Think about that for a moment.

If energy becomes truly in short-supply, wars bigger than all the wars put together will ensue (there’s “glass half-empty” again).

I hope we’re smarter than that. The alternative (making better choices now about how and where we get energy) is certainly a better option than kill or be killed.

And let’s not forget about fusion. We’re closer than ever. This supplants use of the sun for making our own. Sounds a little far-fetched, but we really are smart enough as a species to figure this out.


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billspaced - June 19, 2009 Reply

Comments welcome. I apologize to readers who wanted to comment to this post or any others…for some stupid reason, I checked a couple boxes in my WP admin section that disabled comments!


Peter - June 20, 2009 Reply

In response to your “we should have been taking baby steps decades ago” my observation is we were. What do you think those solar panels of the late 70’s were? How about dual pane windows? Again late 70’s. More insulation— late 70’s. The flood of smaller import cars—really got going in 1970 (VWs were coming in the 1940’s already) Sometime in the future attitudes about drilling are going to change too. The choice isn’t going to be save 1% and ruin a pristine area, it’s going to be this is all we have left and our parents left us with these gigantic debts and we can sell some of this $1000.00 a barrel oil to pay for it

billspaced - June 24, 2009 Reply

Right on, Peter. I guess I should have said “more.”

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