Fossil Fuel Alternatives

While there are many alternatives to fossil fuels, none seem ready to be implemented rapidly. The economic realities are that markets are wedded to oil, natural gas and secondarily to coal. The old ways die hard.

We fully understand that coal plants were killing our forests and streams, indeed even killing us. Gradually we have moved away from it not so much for these reasons, but rather because we cannot use coal to to drive our automobiles, trucks and airplanes. Automobile and truck engines do quite well on gasoline and can be further improved to achieve far better efficiencies.

It now seems that cars and trucks may go through a transition to use liquified natural gas as a fuel. The reasons for this are primarily economic. They reflect the significantly lower cost of natural gas and its long term availability compared with the rapidly increasing costs of oil both now and in the future. These costs primarily reflect the realization that we are running low on easily extracted oil reserves. Costs of extracted petroleum will continue to run higher into the future, as they will eventually for natural gas as well. Nevertheless, the present efforts are to lower costs by using less and by using the cheaper and more available fuel even if sizable costs may occur due to necessary transformation of one costly infrastructure over into another. Thus, we may transition the major fuel used for cars and trucks to liquified natural gas and away from gasoline while continuing to increase the fleet of battery operated hybrids and fully electric vehicles. Although, if we make a costly infrastructure commitment to the use of liquified natural gas, it’s not clear how that will affect the development of hybrid and plug-in electric cars and trucks. Overall, increased efficiencies in the use of hydrocarbon fuels by cars and trucks will likely be valued in the future even if, for a time, economics and availability or liquified natural gas may facilitate its use as a major alternative fuel.

In the short run, prices will inevitably increase on all forms of extractable hydrocarbon fuels including alcohols, oils and diesels derived from agricultural products. These costs will drive further efficiencies including partial or complete transition to increasing use of cleaner energies such as solar, geothermal, nuclear, or other electrically powered engines derived from highly efficient batteries, hydrogen-fuel cells or other forms of power we have yet to develop.

Many of these cleaner energies can be developed as efficient alternatives to fossil fuels. Unhappily markets have not added the costs associated with the continued burning of fossil fuels. In truth if most of the global warming observed is due predominantly to the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in the last two centuries, then continued use of fossil fuels will only add to the problems we are likely to see in the remainder of the century. We are certain to see considerable coastal damage of major metropolitan centers located there, and that may include a need for a considerable relocation of the population. We think this will be far worse if we add significantly to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by continuing to burn fossil fuels at a significant rate throughout the remainder of the century, but in truth  we cannot calculate how much worse it will be if we were to stop burning fossil fuels today or, for that matter, how bad it will be if we continue.

We also have no idea how sporadic the coastal events will be.  Storms, storm intensity, location and frequency will be important. An additional contributing factor is that the size of the coastal population centers around the world will likely continue to increase at least over the first several decades of the new century, but if these locations are increasingly targeted by intense and frequent storms that will change. In 2010 the world moved past 7 billion in population., coming from just passing 6 billion in a little more than a decade. An increase to 8 and then 9 billion likely well before mid century unless major countries begin to systematically implement a slow down in population growth, in part to accommodate the fact that many in developed countries are living longer and median age is increasing rapidly. In addition, and quite relevant to the discussion here, most of the world’s population now lives in cities rather than in the countryside. This trend is likely to continue. People will live, if they can,  in coastal cities with increasing frequency.

Thus, as ocean levels slowly increase through the century and there are significant, frequent and tricky storm risks to coastal areas and, in particular, to large population centers on the coasts, the costs could be considerable. Some coastal cities may be able to protect themselves but only at considerable cost with storm walls, and reorganization of waterfront areas for example. Few cities will plan and carry forward such efforts with sufficient lead time to protect themselves from major property damage, loss of life and displacement.

This is a deeply troubling scenario that may not play out until mid-century or after, but if we continue down the current path we will likely see it at some point.


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