Friday, November 30, 2007

A Manhattan Project

Charles Cooper wants a Manhattan Project to fix our dependency on foreign oil. The Manhattan Project was a good deal for most folks (U.S. of course, but I'll claim Japanese too) because a bunch of people they never met toiled away and produced something they never had to interact with which eliminated the need for all these people to fight and die.

Trouble is, we need to be saved from ourselves. It can be done, but we're all going to have to do the toil.

The most obvious thing we can do is switch to plug-in hybrids for our cars, so that the energy comes from something domestic (coal, hydro, nuclear) rather than something imported (gasoline). But that's just not enough. Look at the numbers:

EIA Petroleum Imports

EIA Petroleum Usage

For the week ended 11/23/2007, we imported 13.4M of the 15.5M barrels of oil we used. We turned that into 9.0M barrels of gasoline, 4.3M barrels of diesel fuel, and 1.4M barrels of jet fuel.

Just converting our car fleet to plug-in hybrids won't cut it. Even plug-in hybrids burn gas, just not as much. If, starting today, all cars sold in the U.S. were plug-in hybrids, then in two decades you might eliminate the equivalent of 6M barrels of today's consumption.

What else could we do? How can we convert that diesel usage to electricity? We could electrify our frieght trains, and use trucks only for local hauling of cargo from business to frieght terminal and back. That might eliminate half of diesel usage, call it 2.2M barrels/week. Together with the plug-in hybrids, that get's us down from 13.4M to 5.2M barrel, every week. Not enough to ignore OPEC.

Carving into that remaining 5.2M barrels/week will be really hard. A rationalization of our transport network might move a lot of frieght and some people onto electric trains from planes. There is opportunity there: between parking and security, it takes two hours to get on a plane. If you can get on a 200 MPH train in 10 minutes vs 120 minutes for a 600 MPH train, it's faster for journeys shorter than 550 miles.

Mr. Cooper thinks we should be investing in nuclear energy. But nuclear doesn't help us break free from OPEC. Nuclear saves the environment from all that CO2. It's a seperate issue, also very important, and very interesting, really, since nuclear waste, even if it gets out, isn't really going to bother most birds and bees, but it's a problem for us bipeds who live to 70 years old and care about property values. If anything, nuclear transfers risk from the rest of the world back to us. Seems we don't like that, even if the total risk is reduced.