Image of Oil in Water.

Why We Love Big Oil, Part 1: The Overview

Brent Nelson
Nov 2, 2015

So in my last post, I claimed that Captain Planet had ruined a generation of environmentalists.  While I hope it was apparent that I was writing somewhat tongue-in-cheek (Captain Planet did, after all, influence my own desire to do good things for the environment), my main goal was to show that: i) our lives fundamentally require fossil fuels; ii) we’re not really willing to give up the things that fossil fuels enable us to do; iii) we don’t really have viable alternatives; and iv) if you truly want to save the environment, you should put your efforts towards aiding the development of viable alternatives. 

To prevent my previous post from becoming too much of a boondoggle, I had to gloss over the whole "we don’t really have viable alternatives" thing, with vague allusions to future posts.  So here begins "future posts."  This one will focus on just providing a general overview of the challenges with developing alternatives to oil, and some basics about the current alternative directions. 

Just for funsies, lets repeat the "do you love big oil" test from before:

1.       Do you like being able to travel to places over 100 miles away on occasion?

2.       Do you like to travel internationally, presumably via airplane?

3.       Do you like having fresh produce in the winter or eating foods that don’t grow where you live (like bananas, oranges, pineapples, mangos, and quinoa)?

4.       Do you like being able to live in ‘not-a-farm’ or ‘not-right-next-to-the-factories-that-produce-the-things-you-use’ (e.g. clothing, electronics, appliances, etc.)?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any one of those questions (and you probably answered yes to all five), then you luvluvluvluv-heart-bff-OMG-totez-heart-luv big oil LOL.  Because NONE of those things are possible today without oil. 

We love oil more than Kanye loves Kanye, and in order to understand this love affair, we have to recognize the fundamental challenge in transportation:

When things move around, they need to carry their energy around with them.

Anyone that has ever gone backpacking knows that when you have to carry stuff around with you, things like weight and size matter a lot.  In transportation, weight matters because heavier things need more power to get moving, and more energy is wasted in stopping them.  Size matters because cars need to be able to fit in parking spaces and garages and traffic lanes while also having space for people and stuff…so energy sources can only be so big.  Liquid fuels like diesel, gasoline, and ethanol pack a lot of energy into their weight and size, and the alternatives can’t match it. 

So let’s talk about the current approaches to replacing oil, which requires understanding both the alternative energy sources and the technologies that use them.

Regular vehicles with alternative fuels.  Since liquid fuels work so well, the most straightforward approach to moving away from oil is to power conventional vehicles with fuels that aren’t made from oil, such as biofuels.  Biofuels offer at least the possibility of being carbon neutral, but they also have several challenges, including: i) high energy inputs in the growing, harvesting, and conversion processes; ii) limits to land availability; iii) cost; and iv) a lot of existing infrastructure that has an inconvenient habit of dissolving when ethanol is put into it.

Plug-in Hybrids (e.g. Chevy Volt).  Plug-in hybrids have a battery bank that actually provides enough energy storage for most commutes (20-40mi), and for longer trips use an engine that functions as a generator to provide electricity to the electric motors that turn the wheels.  It still needs liquid fuels.

Electric Vehicles (e.g. Tesla, Nissan Leaf).  Electric vehicles store their energy in batteries which are charged using grid electricity.  Contrary to some perceptions, electric vehicles are not emissions-free.  Significant emissions are associated with the generation of electricity, with the actual emissions profile varying greatly depending on the timing of charging and the fuel mix of the region.

Fuel Cell Vehicles (e.g. Toyota Mirai).  Conceptually, fuel cell vehicles are most similar to electric vehicles.  But in terms of the actual devices on the car, they’re sort of a blend of concepts between electric vehicles and traditional combustion engines…kind of like the duckbill platypus of the automotive world.  Like conventional vehicles, they start with a fuel: hydrogen is the most common one.  What makes fuel cell vehicles unique is that instead of burning the fuel there instead is a chemical reaction that drives an electron transfer that drives the electric motors that turn the wheels.  While the only vehicle emission is water, hydrogen is either converted from natural gas (and is thus a fossil fuel with CO2 released in the conversion process) or created using electricity to split water (and is thus a form of storing electrical energy, basically like a battery).  So if we’re focused on moving away from fossil fuels, then the real question with fuel cells is how they compare to batteries.

So those are the main alternatives at the moment.  While each offers the possibility of carbon-free transportation, there are still a lot of challenges to solve before they become truly viable, especially at a large scale.  

Brent Nelson


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

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