Since energy will be the defining issue of the 2010s it is important to get a few basics straight. The number one elemental aspect of energy that all ideological sides of our polity get wrong is the assumption of a profound symbiotic relationship between the grid energy that powers our homes and businesses, and the crude oil that powers our vehicles. While the two are related, this relationship is tangential enough that it renders the notion that an increase of grid energy will reduce the need for crude to be false in any practical sense. The oft spoken claim that an increase in nuclear or renewable (wind, solar, biomass, etc.) generation will reduce our reliance on foreign oil does not pass the laugh test.
A modicum of critical thinking problematizes the increase in grid energy = decrease in fuel energy maxim. It is currently impossible for the overwhelming majority of Americans to use grid electricity to propel their automobiles. A different version of the same oil that feeds your car does produce a little bit of grid energy in New England and does provide heat for about 8.1 million homes, mostly in the Northeast, but a wholesale magic wand replacement of this oil grid energy with any other source would not reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil in any meaningful way. While both grid energy and fuel energy are “energy” they perform tasks that are almost independent of one another.
The connection between grid energy and fuel energy is strongest with Natural Gas. Natural Gas, largely but by no means completely, comes from the same places and even the same wells as crude oil. The geography and extraction is similar enough that the price of natural gas is correlated with the price of crude oil. Natural Gas makes up enough of the USA grid energy market, that the price of a megawatt of any generation is correlated with the price of Natural Gas. In this tertiary sense grid energy is correlated to crude oil. Creating enough grid energy from a source other than Natural Gas to both decommission existing natural gas generation and meet load growth would help shield the grid energy market from price increases associated by the cost of oil, but it would do nothing to end American dependence on oil. Nuclear and renewables, even couple with a heroic conservation effort, are unlikely to pull off this trick any time soon for reasons that will be discussed in a future post.
Grid energy can reduce American dependence of foreign oil when grid energy can be used as a replacement for the oil used to propel our automobiles. Luckily, this is already possible. For $100,000 a Tesla Roadster will go 220 miles per charge — thereby obviating Bush Patsy McSame’s ridiculous gambit of offering 300 million dollars for anyone that will produce a technology that already exists. Two hundred and twenty miles is enough for even the most outrageous commute. Combining a Tesla battery with some gas or biodiesel capability for rare long trips would go a tremendous way towards reducing America’s dependence on foreign crude oil, while maintaining cars capable of doing the same tasks that they do now. The limiting factors are cost and availability of grid energy “Fill Up” stations. These are the sort of problems that can be addressed with subsidies, a gas guzzler buy back program, tax incentives, and, most of all, a massive, government-led if need be, effort to develop plentiful grid energy Fill Up stations.
Of course, once automobiles become a major consumer of grid electricity they will increase the need for additional grid energy supply, which could create new problems, or a different version of the old reliance on foreign oil if this new supply is largely met by Natural Gas. Similar problems arise when solar, wind, and other intermittent renewables become more than a bit player on the grid.
A creative, intertwined solution to these problems is to come.