Then & now

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Then & now

by Roger Blanchard

Recently a friend gave me a copy of a January 22, 1973 issue of Newsweek. The cover title was “The Energy Crisis”. It’s interesting to look back and see how things have changed; or, to be more accurate, not changed.

Technological optimism prevailed back then as it does today. Here are a few excerpts from the article concerning nuclear power:

“Any crisis policy would eventually be doomed, of course, unless technology produces important new energy sources. And, happily, the outlook looks brighter after the ‘70s. By the mid-1980s, nuclear power, paced by the exotic fast-breeder reactor, will begin taking the load off fossil fuels. Nuclear energy may produce 13% of all U.S. power in 1985 vs. less than 1% today and then is expected to boost its share to 26% by 2000″.

“The fast-breeder reactor will have a major impact because, in seeming defiance of the laws of physics, it produces more atomic fuel-plutonium-than it burns.”

The article stated that experts in nuclear energy were confident in the success of fast-breeder reactors. As of 2009, there are no fast-breeder reactors in the U.S. and it’s questionable whether fast breeder reactors will ever provide energy for the U.S. The Clinch River experimental reactor, in Tennessee, was shut down years ago because of exorbitant costs and technical problems. Rather than providing 26% of our energy needs in 2000, nuclear power provided about 8% of total U.S. energy demand.

In terms of oil shale, the article stated:

“By 1985, rising prices of crude oil and natural gas may force two other promising developments onto the market–oil produced from shale so abundant in the American West, and gas produced from coal fields. There are pilot plants using both processes, but so far their output is too costly to compete. Shale oil, for instance, would cost about $7.50 a barrel vs. the present price of $3.25-$3.50 for a barrel of crude.”

Years ago I read congressional testimony from an executive of Exxon who at the time, ~1980, expressed the belief that by 2000, the U.S. would be producing 2 mb/d of oil from oil shale and 8 mb/d by 2025. As of 2009, no oil is produced from oil shale and it’s likely that no significant amount will be produced in the next 16 years.

The article mentioned atomic fusion and hydrogen, giving the impression that both would be a possibility at some point in the not-so-distant future. It’s not unusual to see similar statements today in media articles about energy.

It’s nice to be optimist, but it’s wise to be realistic when it comes to energy. There is considerable optimism these days, at least among some people, about cellulosic ethanol and oil from algae. In my view, these energy sources will only go as far as government subsidies take them.

There is also considerable optimism about electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. Electric vehicles have been around since ~1890 and were fairly common in the early 1900s. The problems that have historically dogged electric vehicles have not suddenly gone away and I think those problems will limit their extent of market penetration in the future.

First, electric vehicles have been and continue to be expensive relative to petroleum-based vehicles. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will be expensive as well.

In a Time magazine article (Sept. 29, 2008), Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman at GM, was quoted as saying that GM hoped to bring the cost of the Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid electric) down to $40,000 or less. Even if GM gets the price of the Volt to less than $40,000 (assuming they ultimately produce it), it won’t be much less. When taxes, options and freight are added in, the price could be considerably above $40,000.

If we assume a price of $40,000 for a Volt, how does that compare to a Nissan Versa in economic terms. According to the Nissan website, the Versa can be purchased for $10,000 so there is a $30,000 difference between a Versa and a Volt. The government is supposed to give a $7,500 tax credit for the Volt so a Volt would cost a buyer $32,500, or about three times that of a Versa.

Let’s assume you buy a Versa and drive an average of 10,000 miles a year, the car gets an average of 30 miles/gallon and the average price of gasoline over the time period you own it is $4.00/gallon. How long can you drive the Versa before you have spent $22,500 (the difference between $32,500 and $10,000) on gasoline? The answer is nearly 17 years. That’s considerably longer than most people own a vehicle.

I expect a practical electric vehicle to cost at least $35,000-40,000, if not more. Electric vehicles will be out of the price range for a significant portion of the American population. There will be relatively wealthy people who will buy electric vehicles and rave about how wonderful the vehicles are, but that won’t convince those individuals who can’t afford an electric vehicles to buy one.

Many people who buy motor vehicles buy them with some expectation that they can use them for carrying and towing purposes. Electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will not be vehicles you’ll want for towing purposes because of a lack of power, and their carrying capacity will be seriously limited. I may change my view of the towing capacity of electric vehicles when I see one pulling a snowmobile trailer with 6-8 snowmobiles up to the UP from southeastern Michigan as I often see with diesel-powered vehicles.

There are also the problems of range, especially when various electrical accessories are used, and battery charging time.

Whether people want to accept it or not, oil has significant advantages compared to alternatives. Two advantages that most people aren’t aware of are that oil distillates have very high enthalpy of combustion values and that distillates have high energy densities.

Enthalpy of combustion is an important factor related to the energy density of a fuel and the fuel’s power capacity. Energy density is an important factor in defining how far a vehicle can go on a tank of fuel and how large the tank has to be.

Table 1 displays enthalpy of combustion values for various fuels.


Based upon the data in Table 1, it would take about 18 times more hydrogen molecules, 8 times more methanol molecules and 4 times more ethanol molecules to obtain the same amount of energy as obtained from a molecule of octane.

Table 2 displays energy density values for various fuels. The high energy density of oil components makes them particularly valuable as transportation fuels due to the small volume required for containing high energy content.

Table 2: Energy Densities for Common Fuels


The energy densities of H2 and CH4 are much lower than octane because they are gases. In gases, the molecules are much farther apart than in a liquid, even when gases are compressed to very high pressure. The low energy densities of gaseous fuels make them poor choices for transportation applications even if they are compressed to very high pressures. For gaseous-fuel-powered vehicles, the fuel tanks must be much larger, the vehicle must get much better mileage per unit of fuel, the vehicle must be refilled more frequently or some combination of the three must be used.

There is considerable talk now about making the U.S. energy independent. Although it’s a laudable goal, I don’t see that happening without major changes in the American lifestyle. With declining future U.S. oil production, it would not be surprising to see the percentage of U.S. oil imports increase even if we manage to reduce our oil consumption rate in coming years. That is a problem that most, if not all, politicians would prefer not to admit to the American public.

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent ASPO-USA’s positions; they are personal statements and observations by informed commentators)


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