Energy continues to make the news this week as the barrel price for crude oil goes up and gasoline prices at the pump increase. Electricity, which has increased in cost substantially, will continue to become more expensive because of political choices about our sources of generated power. Write your State congressman if you don’t like the prices, because they are the ones forcing utility companies to use more expensive sources like solar and wind based on the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards.
The barrel price increasing is good news for the United States. There are proven oil reserves sufficient to power all transportation systems for 500 years at our current rate of consumption. And that’s just the Permian Basin, not including the Bakken Field in the Dakotas. The US needs to be energy independent and stabilize fuel prices at a cost that everyone can live with, producers and consumers alike. We are very close to that price.
The Achilles’ Heel of alternative energy is storage. What makes oil valuable is that it is energy dense and is stored in the ground. Gasoline in your car weighs about 6.3 pounds per gallon, while the equivalent energy in batteries would weigh about 660 pounds. It’s hard to argue with.
Energy from the sun strikes the Earth’s surface at 100-167 Watts per square meter depending on where you are. It is free, it’s designed in to the ecosystem so that life on Earth is possible. Converting that energy to electricity has a cost, around $3/Watt for small systems and $2/Watt for large scale utility systems.
The problem is; where do you store the energy? The power can be used on demand, but then electrical loads can only be operated when the sun is shining. Need lights at night? Not going to happen without a storage format.
You can say the same about wind power, it’s a free form of energy. Wind power generators only operate about 25% of the time and, worse still, they are often located in remote areas where transmission lines add huge costs to proposed wind farm projects. Without a storage technology, wind users can only operate when the wind is blowing, which isn’t very often.
Oil is a free resource that sits in the ground. The costs are the means to find it, extract it from the ground, transport it, and refine it into the many products that are derived from crude oil. Natural Gas is often found in the same places as oil. Crude oil continues to be the most efficient form of energy available, if this were not so, it wouldn’t be so popular.
Lithium battery technology increased the density of battery storage by 4 times over the lead acid battery and has made great strides in bringing practical electric cars and hybrids to the market. Lithium need to increase that much again and decrease in cost substantially at the same time, in order to make independent home energy and electric vehicle storage cost effective enough for mass consumption.
Fortunately the technology already exists, it just needs a little time to work it’s way into the market. It’s going to be an interesting future.