Saturday, May 29, 2010

Gasoline, Revisited

Gasoline is pretty cheap in America when I think about it. Compare it with other fluids that people buy without blinking. The cheapest wine costs $19.96/gallon. Cola? A better deal, $1.72 per gallon, but only if you buy in bulk. $3/gallon if you buy from a supermarket. Vinegar? A whopping $8.76/gallon.
American consumers pay this without blinking an eye. But when gas hits $3/gallon? The complaints never end. The current price at the closest station to me is $2.69 per gallon. People see this as expensive, but I'm going to convert it to European standards so my European readers give some perspective. This is .53 Euros/liter after I do the math. I can already hear the derisive laughter.
One reason why the gas prices are this low in the US are because we have oil supplies in the country (even though we use far more than we can readily extract), and the refineries are also local. Another reason is the political will to keep it flowing. Our politicians will move heaven and earth to keep gas cheap.
Last time there was a major spike in the gas prices, there were many speeches about gas being essential to our way of life and demanding action. But there were also considerable funds put into research for alternatives, from ethanol to electric. Funds that promptly dried up again when the price fell, supposedly due severe cutbacks in transportation leading to a fall in demand.
I think it is desirable to have alternatives, especially considering the increasing political hostility of many of the major suppliers. The three biggest suppliers of petroleum I can name offhand, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela, all have deteriorating relationships with the United States. There is a security standpoint, which notes that if the US were blockaded, gas prices would rise to extreme prices, and probably would be unavailable to the civilian population entirely. This would affect more than just personal cars -- most businesses in the US are supplied by truck. Shortage would become the norm, shutting down large sectors of the economy.
It would be nice to develop a cheap and abundant alternative, but it may just be wishful thinking. Electricity suffers from storage issues, hydrogen is a carrier, not a source, (and is immensely difficult to keep contained), coal is smoky (and possibly stinky), nuclear is not happening, and solar is totally impractical. Ethanol would require a huge increase in farmland (and would likely drive up food prices from competition), and methane...methane could work. Insert "fart powered car" joke here.
In France's "wine lake," a region in which a large number of amateur wine producers have grown so much wine that the price of wine in the area has pretty much collapsed, it may be practical to have a wine-powered car that would filter the ethanol from the water, and burn the ethanol for fuel.

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