Chapter 15
Power and the Environment

A lot of people blame the mining, timber, oil, power, automobile, and other industries for damaging Planet Earth, but this is passing the buck.  Industries are not at the root of environmental problems; we, the people who buy the products and services industries provide, cause the problems.  Without consumers there would be no producers and no environmental damage or depletion of earth’s resources.  Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”  Of course companies make matters much worse by trying to get us to buy things we don’t need.  We are a decadent society.  Consumption of nearly everything continues to increase because of growing affluence and increasing populations. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census middle projections the U.S. Population will be about 325 million in 2020.  The world population will be about 7.5 billion by that date, up from around 6.5 billion today.  But I wonder if those projections took into account the fact that by 2020 we will be past the world oil production peak.  The world population will level off and inevitably fall as available energy per capita falls. 

My wife and I are do-it-ourselves environmentalists: We minimize our consumption.  We use little water, and especially little hot water (But we bathe every Christmas and Fourth of July, whether we need to or not.)  We turn off lights, use the more efficient fluorescent bulbs, and I put this computer into sleep mode when I am not actively using it.  When the store clerks ask “Paper or plastic?” if we can manage our purchases without a bag we say, “Neither, thanks.  Save the Earth.”  Most of the clerks understand our concern, and respond favorably. 

We all need to watch ourselves to avoid being hypocritical.  We can’t logically oppose all timber cutting if we live in houses made of wood and we read things printed on paper.  We must not think that energy-gobbling aluminum-reduction plants are bad, because the airplanes we fly in, the pots and pans we use, and the foil we wrap things in are made of aluminum.  We can’t object to all new copper mines, because our electricity is brought to us over copper wires, and every electrical thing we use contains a lot of copper.  We need to watch ourselves on our positions concerning hydroelectric dams, coalmines, oil and gas wells, pipelines, tankers, and nuclear power; because we heat and light our homes, and drive cars with energy harvested by these things. 

And we can’t fairly argue that these necessary but controversial mines, factories, and infrastructures should all be put in someone else’s backyard.  To be fair, our personal share of everything that we consume should be produced in our backyard.  But who wants to be that fair these days?  I was just reading about a group that was trying to prevent the installation of a cell-phone tower in their neighborhood.  I trust that none of those complainers use or will ever use cell phones.  Maybe they would prefer a steel mill in their backyards instead, so there will be steel for their next cars. 

Global warming” has been a controversial subject for the last few years, even among the scientists.  To start with many scientists said that mankind’s actions have little or nothing to do with it, that this is just another warming cycle in the natural cyclic temperature-swings of nature.  But as time went on, more and more qualified scientists came to believe the pollutants that mankind is dumping into the atmosphere in greater and greater amounts are indeed largely responsible for the frightening rate of melting of the glaciers and polar ice caps with resulting higher sea levels, for the serious changes in weather patterns all over the world, including hurricanes, and for the extinction of many species. 

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazine has a monthly column called the Skeptic.  It is written by Dr. Michael Shermer, who has graduate degrees in experimental psychology and in the history of science.  Shermer was a college professor for twenty years, is the founder of the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and a Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech.  His chosen field is questioning and often challenging theories, assumptions, and pseudo sciences.  In his column in the June 2006 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Shermer acknowledged that for years he has been skeptical of the theories and “evidence” on global warming, but he no longer is.  He wrote, “… convergence of evidence from numerous sources has led me to make a cognitive switch on the subject of anthropogenic global warming. “…[Evidence] around the world has shocked me out of my doubting stance.  “It is time to flip from skepticism to activism.”

On June 22, 2006 The National Academy of Sciences released a 155-page report to the US Congress, in which a panel of top climate scientists concluded many things about global warming, including the following: “Human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming.”  “The Northern Hemisphere is the hottest it has been in 2,000 years.”  “The warming in the last few decades of the 20th century was unprecedented over the last 1,000 years.”  “Sharp spikes in carbon dioxide and methane, the two major ‘greenhouse’ gases blamed for trapping heat in the atmosphere, began in the 20th century after remaining fairly level for 12,000 years.  Between 1 AD and 1850 volcanic eruptions and solar fluctuations were the main causes of changes in greenhouse gas levels.  But these temperature changes were much less pronounced than the warming due to greenhouse gas levels by pollution since the mid 19th century.”

This excess CO2 is coming mostly from the burning of fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates.  Burning anything with carbon in it, including the huge amounts of gasoline and diesel oil used in our cars, trucks, and airplanes, makes carbon dioxide that ends up in the atmosphere.  National and International Dualmode Transportation will eliminate the major share of CO2 generated by transportation, provided that we make the needed electricity by non-CO2-releasing methods.  

We are used to flipping a switch and an electric light or some other device comes on, so we tend to think that the source of power for these conveniences is electricity; but that is an oversimplification.  Electricity was the carrier of that power, but the energy in it had to come from petroleum, natural gas, water flowing downhill, the fission of uranium, the sun, the wind, biomass, geothermal, or some other real source of energy.  By “real” I mean available to us.  Electric power is not available in nature, except for lightning, which we have not harnessed.  Going back two steps further, most of the sources we use to make electricity originally got their energy from the sun, which in turn gets it from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium.  A wise man once wrote: “E=MC2”, which applies to both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. 

Power and energy are not the same things, by the way.  Power is the rate of expending energy.  In other words, power is the amount of energy used divided by the time it took to use it.  Electric power is measured in watts, kilowatts, or megawatts (one megawatt is a million watts or a thousand kilowatts).  But our electric bills list the kilowatt-hours of energy we have used.  When talking about automobile engines we measure their power in horsepower.  One horsepower equals 746 watts or 0.746 kilowatts, in case you have been wondering.  (If you haven’t been wondering, it is still 746 watts.) 

In 2002 the global price of crude oil averaged twenty dollars a barrel.  In April of 2006, as I write this, crude is going for over seventy dollars a barrel.  Three-and-a-half times as much in only four years.  Maybe we have a little problem here. 

According to fellow dualmode-transportation researcher and fossil-fuel expert Dr. Richard Guadagno, we are now burning the earth’s petroleum reserves at a rate 20 million times that at which they were accumulated in the earth’s crust.  Like tomorrow we will have maxed out all of the fuel credit we can find, with no way of paying any of it back.  We will be petroleum poor almost immediately, and petroleum bankrupt in several decades. 

Perhaps you have read of extensive deposits of “tar sands” and “oil shale.”  But the problem with them is that they are so difficult to extract and refine that we would have to use a lot of energy in digging and processing them; there would be little net energy gained.  Therefore these and other fuels from marginally productive deposits will be disappointingly if not prohibitively expensive. 

Guadagno went on to say that there is an almost negligible possibility that we will ever find another oil reserve of the size that was found in the Persian Gulf.  But if we should be so lucky, at our current rate of consumption that new find would delay our “running-on-empty” point by only about ten more years.  The George W. Bush administration is promising (or threatening?) to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Florida Gulf Coast to oil exploration.  The Florida Coast is estimated to hold 396 million barrels of oil.  That would yield only twenty days worth of the oil consumed in the US alone, according to a New York Daily News article.  Should we take that bit of “chemotherapy” or shut down the United States twenty-days sooner?  As with terminal cancer, the choice is difficult because the outcome is essentially hopeless either way.  Dualmode is the only known therapy that will offer great and extended relief for transportation—if we can develop it soon enough.  Again like cancer, early action is of the essence, and we are not early in this case. 

There are two definitions of “Peak Oil” currently being used.  The meaningful one is that at “Peak Production” the worldwide demand for oil will begin to exceed the amount of oil that is being produced, or can be produced in the near future.  The other definition, which I suspect was originated by some writer who did not understand the problem, is that at “peak oil” half of the world’s recoverable oil supplies will have been used.  This latter “point” is something that can never be determined accurately, and it has little to do with whether or not we are currently producing enough petroleum products to meet the demand.  The thing that is going to bite us and cause great upheaval, is the point beyond which we can’t get enough fuel for our cars, and for all of the farm implements, mines, factories, and trucks and freight trains that make and deliver our food and everything else that we consume and depend upon. 

A number of experts in the field have studied and written about the worldwide peak-petroleum production date.  On February 20, 2005, EV World (Electric-Vehicle magazine) published an article titled, “The Global Nutcracker Called Peak Oil,” by Jan Lundberg.  Mr. Lundberg was the former publisher of the oil industry Lundberg Letter, and now directs the efforts of Culture Change.  In the EV article Lundberg points out that it will be a relatively long time before “all of the oil is gone,” but that is not the date we should be looking at.  The very much closer and much more frightening date is the point of peak production—where all of the available producing wells are being pumped at their full capacity.  At that peak the production from old wells will start to decline faster than new wells to replace them can be found, drilled, and pumped.  But the demand for oil is not going to peak at that time or for the foreseeable future; the demand will continue to escalate just as it has for over a century. 

What will happen right after the peak-oil date?  Lundberg devotes several pages to the answers.  In very brief summary: Since supply can no longer keep up with demand at that point, there will be an immediate oil shortage that will rapidly escalate.  The price of gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, and natural gas will increase at an ever-higher rate.  (Natural gas prices will also go up because it will substitute for oil in some uses.  The peak-production date for natural gas may be only twenty years away).  And the cost of electricity will go up because some of it is produced from oil and gas.  The price of coal will also go up, because half of our kilowatt-hours come from coal, and that percentage will increase.  With all energy costing more, the price of food and other necessities will also be forced up. 

Without enough gasoline some of us won’t be able to get to work, so our jobs won’t get done and the GNP will fall—and some paychecks will stop coming.  And some of us won’t be able to get to the grocery store to buy food.  Food availability will also decrease, since many farmers will have to reduce or terminate production because they are dependent upon petroleum-fueled agricultural machinery.  The shortage of trucks with fuel in the tanks will keep some food from getting to market even if the food was produced. 

         If that isn’t enough, worry about how most of us temperate-zone dwellers are going to keep our homes warm through shortages of oil, natural gas, and electricity.  Most people have been quite oblivious to our enormous and vital dependence upon petroleum.  When oil production peaks, all hell is going to break loose. 

How soon?  In the United States (including Alaska) our peak-production point has already passed—over three decades ago.  That is what is meant by our “dependence upon foreign oil;” but as long as our credit is good, we can survive dependence.  There is no way on earth (literally) that the United States could become independent of foreign oil, unless we annex the whole Middle East as our fifty-first state.  Worldwide the peak production date is estimated by some to be 2006 (which is this year, as I write), and estimated by others to occur as late as ten years from now.  It will take at least 20 years to build our dualmode system.  If that doesn’t scare you, you are not listening. 

An article very similar to Lundberg’s appeared in the September 2004 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN.  Under the title, Oil Haves and Have-nots, author Rodger Doyle covered, in particular, the effects that passing the peak-oil-production date will have on the stock market, the world economy, and the increase in political, national, and international tensions that will result. 

         Many other thinking people have seen this post-peak-oil catastrophe coming, and have studied it seriously; but little has been written about it in the public press because of major concerns over starting panics and affecting current business: The oil companies don’t want to talk about it.  The automobile companies don’t want to talk about it.  And the politicians and administrators don’t want to talk about it.  This potato is just too hot to handle, but we are going to get much more seriously burned if we fail to handle it. 

We can only hope that most of the estimates of the peak-production date turn out to be too early, and hope that the world will wake up and go to work on dualmode—full-speed ahead—now.  The sooner we act, the more lives, dollars, pain, frustration, and additional damage to Planet Earth we will save.  Civilization will still be in big trouble, but the guideways will greatly reduce the crises. 

More than 90% of the United States fossil fuel reserves are coal, not petroleum or gas, but “Coal supplies only 0.1% of the total national transportation energy requirement.”—Dr. Hal B.H. Cooper, and Richard J. Buck.  (That figure was higher when locomotives used coal instead of diesel oil.  The railroad people also discovered that oil is more convenient to use than coal.) 

Automobiles won’t run on coal, nor will diesel trucks or buses.  But slightly over half of our electricity now comes from the burning of coal.  Every expert will give us a different answer, but they have said that in something like two hundred years the world’s coal will be largely gone.  That is the bad news.  The good news (in this case a whimsical byproduct of the bad news) is that the production of man-made global-warming carbon dioxide will decline as we run short of things to burn. 

Hopefully, before the coal runs out we will have ample electric power from wind, the sun, geothermal, tidal, and other sustainable nonpolluting 21st-century power sources.  Best of all would be achieving that elusive goal, controlled nuclear fusion.  The point is that an all-electric dualmode system will not be adversely affected by changes in the sources of its energy; while most automobiles, buses, and trucks as we know them will be out of business when our petroleum is largely gone; and that will be very soon. 

We can produce internal-combustion-automobile fuel from coal, but it is expensive, inefficient to produce, and carbon dioxide would be released by the coal-to-oil conversion plants as well as by the vehicles themselves.  In an article in the May 2006 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Gunjan Sinha wrote that in 2006 a plant will be built in Gilberton, PA to process 1.4 million tons of coal a year by a Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to produce approximately 5,000 barrels of diesel fuel a day.  It is estimated that the price of crude oil needs to be $60 a barrel or more to make the coal-to-oil process attractive.  The intent is to use “waste” coal, discarded because of low energy content.  Approximately half of the coal mined ends up in the waste pile at some mines.

          However, we must not forget the enormous amount of CO2 released in the coal-to-oil processing as well as by the diesel vehicles on the highways.  “Unless scientists develop methods to sequester CO2 and find other uses for the gas, the technology might languish, warned Rudi Heydenrich, business manager of South African energy giant, Sasol.”  Liquid fuels can also be made from natural gas, at less cost and with less carbon dioxide emission, but natural-gas shortages are already boosting its price enormously. 

All bets are off on the old predictions as to when we will run out of coal and natural gas, because they were based on the usage rates at the time the estimates were made.  Now, with more demand for electricity, and with gas and coal substituting for oil more and more, the smelly stuff and the black stuff will be gone much sooner.  In a Wall Street Journal article it was stated that Appalachian coal cost $29 per ton in 2002, and $58 per ton in 2005.  The price of coal doubled in the last three years.  Note that the costs of all three major fossil fuels are already climbing very rapidly. 

When the petroleum and natural gas are gone we will need much more total electric power than we now use.  Electricity, which can be made from any source of energy, is our most convenient and versatile energy carrier.  Therefore it will be called upon to meet a high percentage of the energy requirements now met by oil and natural gas.  In the United States, transportation now consumes 65% of the oil we use (Data from South Carolina Energy Office, Transportation Sector).  Our dualmode system, being electric powered in both modes, will use the lion’s share of the additional electricity we must then generate.  REV must be designed to use only electrical energy in both modes, because electricity is the only single form of energy we can make from all of the different sources of energy that we will have to use during the coming energy crisis. 

There are currently no alternative fuels that could replace gasoline and diesel oil for a significant percentage of our existing internal-combustion-powered vehicles.  Ethyl alcohol, a common biofuel, is often added to gasoline these days.  But it, like most fuels, contains carbon (somewhat less than gasoline) and releases global-warming carbon dioxide when it burns.  However, there are more basic reasons why we won’t be running all of our cars on alcohol, biodiesel or some other biofuel: If we plant the billions of acres of crops needed to make the required enormous amount of biofuels we probably wouldn’t have enough arable land left to feed everyone.  I suppose we could give people a choice: “Do you want to drive or to eat?”  Unfortunately the rich people would drive and eat, while the poorest might be unable to do either.  Another problem is that in most places crop-growing to make biofuels would require more irrigation, and fresh water in most of the world is an increasingly “endangered species.” 

         Even if we could plant, grow, and harvest enough biomass, then ferment it and distill off the alcohol, or make biodiesel, it would be highly labor intensive and therefore very expensive.  Diesel from reclaimed vegetable oils?  Sure, make biodiesel out of all the waste vegetable oil we have, but that is a drop in the bucket (or kettle) compared to the fuel we burn in our cars. 


Wind power is an indirect form of solar power: Heat energy from the sun creates “weather” including the winds.  Wind turbines continue to be one of the most promising sustainable sources of electric power, but these systems too have their limitations and detractors.  Some people don’t like the appearance of wind-turbine “farms” on the landscape, and some people living near them object to the sound made by the rotating turbine blades.  Several years ago there was a lot of concern expressed over the danger of the whirling blades to birds and bats, but recent studies have shown that these fears were exaggerated.  The Audubon Society is now becoming more accepting of wind turbines except in a few bird-migration paths. 

          Wind farms have been seen on some horizons for a decade or more, but large modern efficient reliable turbine farms are currently being installed in dozens more locations all over the world, including big wind farms in the seas.  The total capacity of operating wind farms worldwide was 59,000 megawatts in 2005.  That amounted to 1% of the electricity produced in the world.  By 2010, with tens of thousands of additional wind turbines, The World Wind Energy Association expects 120,000 megawatts of wind power to be available.  “Wind power is the fastest growing form of electricity generation.”—Wikipedia. 

Generally the cost of wind-electric power is now less than a fifth of what is was a decade ago, and the cost will continue to drop as the technology improves and production increases.  In some places wind power is said to cost less per KWH than fossil-fuel-generated power.  Encouraging indeed, if we can believe it. 

           As wind-turbine technology has progressed we have seen their supporting towers get taller and taller.  There are two reasons for this: A taller tower permits longer turbine blades that generate more power; and the wind velocity increases as we get away from the ground, which generates still more power.  What about getting way above the ground, say up in the jet stream there the wind blows at speeds up to 200 miles per hour?  But that is at altitudes of twenty to fifty thousand feet.  We can’t build towers quite that high, but we could fly kites that high, with special strong light tethers. 

The great wind power in the jet stream has not been ignored in our search for sustainable energy sources.  Sky WindPower Corporation in San Diego is attempting to develop a practical system of this type.  They would use very large wind turbines wherein the blades would both generate power and provide the kite-like lifting surfaces to keep the system up in the jet stream. 


Howard Simpson, writing in the Seattle Times of June 9, 2001, reminded us of the limitations of direct solar power—it has as many disadvantages as hydroelectric dams, fossil-fuel power plants, and nuclear power plants.  He wrote, “Solar power is about thirty times more expensive than nuclear power and takes 15 square miles to produce 1,000 megawatts of power.  That is about the power of one dam.  The best-known and most direct way for us to capture power from the sun is to use solar cells (photovoltaic cells).  In the past such cells have been very inefficient and their cost has been high, but development of new and better types has been rapid.  We may someday see significant power-grid electricity come from solar-cell farms, but like wind-turbine farms and biomass fuel farms, solar-cell farms require a lot of area, and of course work best in the tropics.  The average power received from the sun in the temperate zones, when it is shining, is about 340 watts per square meter, but the most efficient solar-electric-power systems currently available can collect and convert only about a tenth of that.   

Nuclear power plants supply a high percentage of the power in many countries, and they will doubtless continue to do so for decades.  Nuclear fission produces over seventy-five percent of the electricity in France.  In the United States the figure is twenty-percent nuclear as of 2006.  The Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear-power accidents were serious, and deadly in the latter case, but the lessons we learned from them will reduce future nuclear accidents.  However the many dangers associated with nuclear fission power are still of great concern.  

Nuclear fission power will probably play a significant role in powering our dualmode guideways in their early years.  But if we use a lot of nuclear power, we will eventually run out of suitable uranium ore, maybe about the time we will run out of coal.  However, the development of a simple clean safe nuclear-fusion power system would be the invention of the twenty-first century.  That is the one that would make the future of mankind bright again. 

Geothermal energy is popular in volcanic areas such as Iceland.  The heat in the earth is “unlimited,” but the technology required to harvest it in non-volcanic areas is still many years off, if it is achievable at all. 

The tides are caused by the gravitational effects of both the moon and the sun.  They steal their energy primarily from the rotation of the earth, not from the sun’s radiation.  Tidal energy will be constantly available (for millions of years anyway) but tidal power plants will be limited to seashores where there are large tide differentials, and further limited to narrow-mouth bays or estuaries that serve to concentrate the energy.  The Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia now has a trial 20-megawatt tidal power plant.  The total amount of tidal energy that could be harnessed at that bay is said to be enormous.  There are now only three operating tidal-power plants in the world, the largest being a 240-megawatt plant near St. Malo, France.  As the need for power increases and its cost rises, we may see more tidal-power plants built. 

From the energy standpoint current opposition to hydropower is very unfortunate, because it is a form of “free” solar energy, it is plentiful in many areas, the output is relatively constant day and night and from season to season, and the equipment is thoroughly developed, reliable, efficient, easy to maintain, and long lived.  No alternative power now being developed has all of these advantages.  Hydroelectric power is a major source worldwide, and the primary source of energy in a number of countries and in parts of the United States.  Let us hope that it remains so.  But the “damn the dams” efforts to save salmon are causing more dams to be removed than there are new dams being built.  And hydroelectric power, along with sufficient water for irrigation and domestic use, are being threatened by changing rain and snowfall patterns due to global warming.  In the United States we generate less than half as much hydropower now as we did in 1973. 

In 2005, in the United States, 50% of our electricity was generated from coal, 19.5% was nuclear, 19% was from natural gas, and 3% was from oil, all fossil fuels, and totaling 91.5%.  Hydroelectric power accounted for 6% of our electricity in 2005.  Therefore, if we accept these rounded-off numbers from the Nuclear Energy Institute, all of our other electric power sources together amounted to only 1.5% of the grand total.  Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a long, long way to go before our nation, or any other nation can generate 100% of their electricity from green sustainable sources.  In fact the true picture for the next century is even worse than those numbers indicate, because hydropower is on a steep downward slope for the reasons mentioned. 

Have a nice day.  Any of you with an in with God are urged to pray for the successful development of practical fusion power.  Supporting fusion research wouldn’t be a bad idea either.  But wherever our electricity will come from, all-electric dualmode appears to be the only concept that will make modern future transportation possible after the fossil fuels are gone. 

Next to: CHAPTER 16
Urban Sprawl

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Last modified: October 02, 2006