Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunlight Insight ...

As I continue to research the natural gas situation, I came across some info of a different sort. I thought these findings might be worth sharing. Sorry if this old engineer bores you to tears.

First, according to the DoE Energy Information Administration, the U.S. uses about 100 quads of energy each year (includes oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, etc.). A quad is a quadrillion BTUs.

I would not be surprised if about half of that energy is waisted with low efficiency systems that could and should be replaced or upgraded. We need newer high efficiency appliances, insulation, transformers, engines, transmission lines, etc. as much as we need more energy.

Second, the energy deposited on the lower 48 states by the sun each year is about 100,000 quads. Thus we have a free source of energy that exceeds our needs by a factor of 1000 but we just don't yet know how to use it very effectively.

Third, agriculture on prime heartland is able to convert at most about 1/2 of one percent of the sunlight on a given acre into raw biomass feed stock (cellulose, sugars, starches, oils, etc.) each year. By the time the biomass is refined into more usable forms like ethanol or butanol, only about 1/10th of one percent of the original sunlight energy is captured in usable liquid hydrocarbon "fuel."

That implies that if the ENTIRE United States were planted in corn that is converted to ethanol or other biofuels, we would just barely be able to provide the energy required; i.e., 100 quads. Unfortunately, some land is not suitable for agriculture (rocky soil, mountains, deserts, lakes, cities, etc.) and some is needed for food production, timber production, recreation, living space and other uses.

Thus it seems that we MUST do something to increase the efficiency of solar conversion if we are to have an economy that is sustainable in the long term and if we want to mitigate any negative effects of both the carbon load of fossil fuel utilization and the waste products (or worse nuclear, thermonuclear and dirty bombs) from nuclear power generation.

I find confusing the current emphasis on government subsidies for biofuels and related research. Surely someone at the DoE is aware of these fundamental limitations and has made Congress aware of them too. However, I hear little of this from ADM or the farm lobbies or the major networks or anyone else with significant influence.

In short, biofuel is very unlikely to be able to meet the need and fossil fuels eventually run out. That leaves solar (and its direct derivatives wind and hydro) and nuclear as potentially sustainable sources (and solar IS nuclear without the radioactive waste).

Am I missing something or should Congress (and they are OUR designated decision makers) focus its attention (research, regulation, tax policy, etc.) on the development of 1) improved efficiency energy loads and 2) improved efficiency solar sources as the primary energy policy objectives for the next decade?