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August 13, 2005

Energy Facts for the Day

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* Ethanol from sugarcane supplies 50% of automobile fuel in Brazil.

* France gets 78% of its electricity from nuclear fission.

Source: National Geographic.

Best, if excessively oil-dependent,


posted by Michael at August 13, 2005


The idea of using crops like sugar cane or corn to relieve the oil deficit burden has always confused me. Does the planting, growing, harvesting and converting process use more energy than it provides? And what are the opportunity costs on the land and labor? I'm sure each side of the debate can find economists that will give a favorable "analysis" of the issue.
Some things are obvious:stop driving Hummers, car pool, ride a bike. Of course I understand there are those that complain that doing those things will be counterproductive (for reasons I don't understand). Oh heck, it seems to me that irrespective of whether the market or the government or both are employed to address this growing problem our grandkids will be living in an oil-free world.
As for nuclear, I think I remember reading that there is only 50 years worth of Uranium remaining at the current rate of consumption. Fusion is a long way from being feasible, wind won't give us enough, neither will bio-mass or solar or methane or hydro or all of them put together; not at todays level of consumption. Of course, I've always been a pessimist.

Posted by: jason on August 14, 2005 5:55 PM

I'd be very interested to see information on uranium reserves, as it's something that rarely comes up. Could you provide a link?

Posted by: Zetjintsu on August 14, 2005 6:27 PM

As for the fifty year uranium reserves problem alluded to in the National Geographic article, this fellow says its a bunch of hooey.
The estimation of future energy shortages brings both the optimists and pessimists into the fray and considering how difficult the future is to predict--the variables are daunting-- it sometimes looks to me like we are in a "time will tell" situation. Unsatisfactory, yes, but thankfully better minds than mine are addressing the issue.

Posted by: mark on August 14, 2005 7:34 PM

The National Geographic article, if I remember right, says we've got 50 years of uranium remaining if we keep using it in the way we're using it now -- at that level of efficiency, etc. Presumably new ways of using the stuff could prove more efficient ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 14, 2005 11:52 PM

The World Nuclear Association says there might be a much as 200 years worth of uranium ore available. That assumes current consumption and efficiency rates, and it's likely that efficiency could be improved. On the other hand, nuclear currently provides just 2.6% of the world's energy supply. If we ramp up with a crash program to increase that to, say, 10%, the speculative and proven reserves will be used up in 50 years instead of 200.

The arguments of these nuclear pessimists are worth considering. Here's an article that summarizes their position. It's difficult to say where the truth lies, but I do note that the "don't worry, there's plenty" attitude of the nuclear industry sounds like the oil industry did until just a few years ago, before companies like Shell, BP and Chevron began changing their tune.

Ethanol derived from fermentation isn't very efficient and won't do much to replace U.S. oil consumption. However, other processes for utilizing biomass hold promise. This post and comments at Ergosphere presents a welter of information.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on August 15, 2005 12:37 PM

78% sounds great, but France is the size of Rhode Island (well, not really, but still..)

The thing that always confuses me about all the talk about hydrogen powered fuel cell technology is this: Hydrogen doesn't occur natually. You have to make it, generally by burning or fissioning stuff.

Posted by: johnny virgil on August 15, 2005 1:25 PM

Got this bit off a website on Rudolph Diesel: "The crowning achievement for Rudolph Diesel's invention came at the 1900 Paris Exposition where the diesel engine took the Grand Prix. To the amazement of all in attendance his engine was fueled by 100% peanut oil. It is essential to understand that Diesel believed the utilization of a biomass fuel to be the real future of his engine. He wanted to provide farmers, small industries and those in isolated communities the opportunity to produce their own fuel and to compete with the large monopolies that controlled all energy production at that time." it also goes on to add a little bit of info: "In 1913, Diesel was on his way to England when he disappeared over the side of the ship; his body was later found floating in the English Channel. Some suspect suicide, but others believe that there were political reasons behind his death. The French navy was already using diesel engines and may not have wanted to see the English navy acquire them. Diesel also opposed the politics of Germany and did not want the German navy to utilize his engine. His untimely death made it possible for the German submarine fleet to be powered solely by the diesel engine and soon after inflict heavy damage upon Allied shipping in World War I." (Additionally this site mentions his efforts towards solar power.)

Posted by: bridget on August 15, 2005 3:44 PM

Weren't we all protesting against nuclear energy twenty years ago? I think I still have my t-shirt.

Posted by: Neil on August 15, 2005 4:58 PM

Hmmm, with uranium supplies that low it may be a tight squeeze, but eventaully we should be able to get all the energy we need from orbital solar generators. They're already working on it and have made a lot of progress increasing efficiency and cutting costs. Given human ingenuity and greed, I bet they'll be ready to launch within a couple generations.

Posted by: Zetjintsu on August 15, 2005 5:38 PM

Discussing energy policy brings out the economist in all of us. There is a thread over at Jane Galt about 250 MPG cars and nuclear power.
About that National Geographic article: wasn't the idea of a windmill thrice the height of the Statue of Liberty incredible? Again, no numbers to assess the practicality of the project, but I can forsee a NIMBY response if that is tried over here.

Posted by: stephan on August 15, 2005 6:29 PM

Stephan, this issue does "bring out the economist in all of us", however, how successfully we understand the issue is another matter. If you take a quick look at these polls you will see how mucked up the thinking of many people is. Granted, the wording of the questions is bad-- a short coming of many polls--but the answers still leave me to conclude that the American people have no concept of basic economic logic.

Posted by: jess on August 15, 2005 7:09 PM

1) Using breeder reactors, we have plenty of uranium. 2) ethanol from sugar cane is a plus; ethanol from corn (US style) is an energy loser. It lives by subsidies.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on August 16, 2005 12:42 PM

The man is right. Breeders multipy the effective amount of fissionable fuel by a factor of a hundred or so - more really, when you consider thorium breeders, which produce U-233.

Posted by: gcochran on August 16, 2005 2:28 PM

The developed nations of the world have spent 40 years and billions of dollars in an effort to commercialize breeder reactors. The effort to date has been a failure, probably because of a combination of technological, administrative and macroeconomic reasons.

Who knows, maybe the scientists and engineers will get it right one of these decades. Hopefully, at the same time they will address concerns that breeder reactors make nuclear/dirty bomb technology more readily available to potentially unfriendly nations and rogue actors.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on August 16, 2005 6:09 PM

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