Could a $1 billion prize help end the U.S. addiction to foreign oil? Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) thinks it might. Last week, he urged the National Science Foundation (NSF) to raise such a prodigious amount from private sources and then give it to scientists offering ideas on how to make the United States energy independent.
But why limit the contest to scientists, and what exactly is a “scientist” anyway? It seems to me that we are not short on ideas. We are short on commercially viable ideas, and commercial viability cannot be proven in a lab. If cost were not the overriding variable, we could simply pay double the market price for our oil. Producers around the world would be knocking our doors down to sell their oil to us. That particular idea sure would not win a prize, because cost (commercial viability) is what this is all about. We are not hostage to foreign oil per se; we are hostage to liquid fuel costs, regardless of where that liquid fuel comes from. Also keep in mind that we have not hit peak energy sources, we have just hit peak liquid fuel sources. I hope someone dreams up something better than biofuels, and here is why:
Producing our own liquid fuel within our own borders is actually an attempt to compete on the world energy market. If we cannot produce energy cost effectively (if homegrown costs more than Brazilian grown), then we have gotten nowhere. American consumers will demand the $2 per gallon foreign biofuels over domestically produced fuel that costs $3 per gallon (just like we are demanding Japanese cars over domestically produced ones). How happy would we consumers be if the government decided that we could only buy American made cars?
If technology like cellulosic ethanol is perfected, parts of the world with much better growing conditions and lots of rainforest carbon sinks to convert to cropland will eventually adopt the technology and mop the floor with us (economically). We cannot win the biofuel game, especially if we insist on trying to do it with soybeans and corn:
Since 1991, Brazil has grown from ninth to fifth on the list of the world’s largest agricultural exporters.
In the 1970s and 1980s, after soybeans tolerant to the cerrado’s climate and soils were developed, another expansion began. The cerrado region is twice the size of the U.S. Midwest soybean-producing region, although only a small portion has been opened for agricultural production.
The soil’s physical characteristics are enviable — deep, easily workable, hard to compact and not given to crusting. “You can typically find topsoils of 30 feet to 50 feet in the cerrado. It’s not rare to find soils that are 90 feet deep.”
The average high temperature in the cerrado is always above the optimal temperature for growing soybeans. In the Midwest, those conditions are reached for only a few weeks out of the year.
With wonderful weather and good soil physical conditions, the area is ideal for soybeans as long as growers can find lime and fertilizer, noted Borges.
In addition, Brazil has opened a port in Santarem, but its success depends partly on the reopening of Hwy. 163, which connects to farming regions in the cerrado.
Biofuels would not end price surges. Biofuel refineries would have the similar vulnerabilities and would also be subject to drought (water) and fertilizer induced price fluctuations.
Assuming there are no gaping holes in my logic (or unknown unknowns), then the only real way out is to find ways to use less liquid fuel.
I think that the electrification of our transportation will eventually solve this problem. If fifteen years from now most of us are driving plug-in hybrids, it won’t matter so much what our backup liquid fuel tanks are filled with.