March 24, 2005


The 500-Mile-Per-Gallon Solution: High-tech cars, Arctic drilling, new gas taxes: We must have the will to do it all. (Max Boot, March 24, 2005, LA Times)

An ambitious agenda to achieve those goals has been produced by Set America Free, a group set up by R. James Woolsey, Frank Gaffney and other national security hawks.

They advocate using existing technologies — not pie-in-the-sky ideas like hydrogen fuel cells — to wean the auto industry from its reliance on petroleum. Hybrid electric cars such as the Toyota Prius, which run on both electric motors and gas engines, already get more than 50 miles per gallon. Coming soon are hybrids that can be plugged into a 120-volt outlet to recharge like a cellphone. They'll get even better mileage.

Add in "flexible fuel" options that already allow many cars to run on a combination of petroleum and fuels like ethanol (derived from corn) and methanol (from natural gas or coal), and you could build vehicles that could get — drum roll, please — 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's not science fiction; that's achievable right now.

Set America Free estimates that if we convert entirely to flexible-fuel, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, U.S. gasoline imports in 20 years will drop by two-thirds. As important, because Americans are the world's biggest car buyers, U.S. preferences would reshape the global automotive industry. Carmakers would wind up shipping hybrid electrics to Europe and Asia too. President Bush could hasten the transition through an international agreement to move major economies away from oil dependency. This would not only reduce the Middle East's strategic importance but also help reduce emissions to Kyoto-mandated levels.

There is, of course, a catch. Moving to hybrid electric cars won't be cheap. Automakers would have to retool their wares, gas stations would have to add alcohol-fuel pumps, parking lots would have to add electric outlets. Set America Free puts the price tag at about $12 billion over the next four years.

$12 billion is chump change in an $11 trillion economy.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 24, 2005 7:51 AM

12 Billion, eh? Did Set America Free include the cost of adding electricity production & transmission infrastructure?

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at March 24, 2005 8:18 AM

And we will have to increase our electric generating capacity to cover the demand for recharging vehicles. This is a tricky proposition in the era of NIMBY and environmentalism, but it can be done.

Posted by: Mikey at March 24, 2005 8:26 AM

Mr.Boot, is of course, perfectly willing to foot the costs of this transition himself.....

Posted by: BC Monkey at March 24, 2005 9:21 AM

Add in a trillion or so for new nuke plants and I'm interested. OJ's right, we can swing this but we need to be serious about what it means.

Posted by: JAB at March 24, 2005 9:25 AM

Detroit will typically spend several hundred million dollars just to develop one new car model. $12 billion is absurdly low.

Posted by: joe shropshire at March 24, 2005 9:31 AM

Until we break ground on new nuclear plants, we're not being serious.

100% of the energy for hybrid cars comes from oil. True, they use less oil per mile on average, but the universal experience with better milage is that as the cost per mile decreases, miles driven increases enough to offset the gains. People are not buying gasoline, they're buying miles.

Ethanol requires more energy, usually in the form of petroleum, to make than it contains.

Plugging cars into the socket will require new electricity that will comes from oil or coal. I think we should use more coal -- we are, after all, the Saudi Arabia of coal -- but there will be a price to pay in terms of pollution.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 24, 2005 9:37 AM

Just artificially boost the price of gas and the rest takes care of itself.

Posted by: oj at March 24, 2005 9:40 AM

Yes, I will also believe that we are serious when we put a $2.50/gallon tax on gasoline. I will then cheerfully join the throng rushing to Washington to string up Congress. (OK, so I would pretty much do that on any excuse, but this is the only action that could actually get a sufficient throng together.)

Posted by: David Cohen at March 24, 2005 11:20 AM

Nuclear power is the obvious solution along with oj's gas tax. With this 20 fold increase in efficiency, there is no way people will simply drive enough extra miles to offset the gains. The fun part will be watching state governments scramble to find ways of raising taxes after losing all that gas tax revenue. Also, think of the boost to savings and/or spending when people spend so much less to fuel their cars.

Posted by: Pat H at March 24, 2005 11:26 AM

Once again, Steven Den Beste used to do yeoman service by debunking the likes of oj on energy policy, until illness and moonbat commenters drove him out of blogging.

Here's his master link : A New Manhattan Project; and here's his best single post, which explains the sheer scale of the problem: You've got to start thinking really, really big.

Posted by: joe shropshire at March 24, 2005 12:09 PM


Fat Man and Little Boy worked.

Posted by: oj at March 24, 2005 12:13 PM

oj: SDB talks about that.

Posted by: joe shropshire at March 24, 2005 12:19 PM

We put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s.

Posted by: oj at March 24, 2005 12:26 PM

change leads to increased economic activity. i respect sdb but it is always easy to say why something can't be done. once the economic motivation is strong enough, a replacement for oil will be produced. i mean, its not like we have to create energy from scratch, we just have to figure out how to release what's already available.

"sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
a. clark

Posted by: cjm at March 24, 2005 12:35 PM

There seems to be a misconception here about how oil refining works. The assumption seems to be that you can convert a given barrel of crude into whatever end product you want, so if you reduce the demand for some particular end product enough then you reduce the usage of crude.

It's not that simple. A refinery is doing large scale fractional distillation, and what comes out is the various components which are present in the crude. There's some degree to which those products can be reprocessed in order to change them (i.e. cracking heavier components to produce lighter ones) but it's more limited than you might think.

As long as the demand for diesel fuel and aviation fuel and home heating oil remain strong, then the primary result of drastically reducing demand for gasoline would be for the price of gasoline to plummet. The refinery will still produce it whether there's a market for it or not.

In the extreme case, if there's no market for it, then it would be burned at the refinery.

In order to substantially reduce our consumption of petroleum, we would have to substantially reduce our consumption of all the things which are derived from petroleum. Reducing the consumption of just one of them is pointless.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 24, 2005 12:53 PM

CJM, it's physically impossible to create energy from scratch. Doing so violates the laws of physics. As to "what's available", either they're too small to make any difference, or they're easy to utilize and we're already using them, or they're preposterously difficult to utilize and it will take decades before they're practical if they ever become so at all.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 24, 2005 12:55 PM

Unless the laws of economics have been repealed, making something vastly more expensive will tend to reduce consumption and create incentives for developing alternatives that don't exist when it's cheap.

Posted by: oj at March 24, 2005 12:59 PM


How can that be true if E = mc2?

Posted by: oj at March 24, 2005 1:04 PM

Steven: I still regularly click on just to see if you've lost your mind and have started writing about politics again.

Getting back to the article, we also need to fight the hypothetical. It is not possible, with current technology or anything like it, to build a car that the American people will actually buy that gets 500 miles per gallon of petroleum used to generate energy.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 24, 2005 1:24 PM

Not every problem is soluble. Engineering is the art of the practical.

We engineers have a saying, "Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn't have to do it himself."

OJ, conversion of mass into energy is not "creation of energy" because mass and energy are the same thing.

I discussed potential future sources of energy in the second article that Joe linked to above. One of the four that I discussed was direct conversion of mass into energy.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 24, 2005 1:29 PM

Yes, so cjm's point was precise:

"its not like we have to create energy from scratch, we just have to figure out how to release what's already available."

That it may take some time and money is quite secondary--we've plenty of both.

Posted by: oj at March 24, 2005 1:41 PM

Thanks, Steven, and hope you are feeling better.

Posted by: joe shropshire at March 24, 2005 1:41 PM

David et al. -

The problem with relying on coal is that the power companies are probably even more leery of building a 1000-MW coal generator than a large nuclear plant.

In the very near future (~5 years), some jury will find that a plaintiff's cancer is a direct result of the emissions from a coal plant. There are already 'findings' with respect to coal plant pollution and atmospheric quality, such that the states involved are fighting in court and trying to force the EPA to expand its rules. And, to be accurate, a lot of earth (including uranium and thorium) go out those smokestacks.

Many of the baseload coal plants currently running were built in the late 50s and 1960s and are nearing their end of useful life. How will they be replaced? Not with new coal plants.

Two utilities have recently met with NRC to 'discuss' the building of new nuclear units. We'll see what comes of it.

Posted by: jim hamlen at March 24, 2005 2:06 PM

Add my best wishes for Steven Den Beste to the others. He changed and improved my thinking.

Posted by: Eugene S. at March 24, 2005 2:27 PM

where is tessla when you need him ?

now that the "king" is in the room i feel very self-concious about posting opinions or theories :)

sdb, what do you think about decentralizing power production ? i know its not really that feasible now, but just how far away are we from being able to have a house sized power plant ? i know you can argue against this idea, so it would be more fun to see what you can come up with for the "pro" side :)

Posted by: cjm at March 24, 2005 2:42 PM


Mr. Den Beste is not well and has to husband his energy carefully. Asking him to jump through your hoops for your entertainment (or even your edification) isn't good form IMHO.

Decentral power generation is already being done in some urban settings. Investing tax dollars to increase its use is a tradeoff between benefits, such as reducing losses inherent in long-distance power transmission, and drawbacks, such as forgoing economies of scale offered by large power plants.

It is unlikely to make a big difference either way.

Posted by: Eugene S. at March 24, 2005 3:11 PM

Jim: Exactly. That's why I say that we're not serious about energy policy.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 24, 2005 4:18 PM

eugene: i am well aware of sdb's situation and am sympathetic. did you not notice that he was participating in the conversation on his own volition ? how you come to interpret my question as asking him to jump through hoops is beyond me.
i will give you the benefit of the doubt regarding your intentions on sdb's behalf, and ask that you do the same for me.

Posted by: cjm at March 24, 2005 4:51 PM

CJM: I talked about distributed power generation here starting about halfway down.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at March 24, 2005 7:01 PM

When we start having regular, long lasting blackouts, new electric power plants will get built.

(except perhaps in the state of California, which should be disconnected from the rest of the US in any case)

Posted by: frogger at March 24, 2005 8:08 PM

sdb: thanks for the article, it was chock full of info. the part about data compression being governed by the laws of thermodynamics was kind of trippy :) energy production is kind of the new alchemy, everyone is looking for the Philosopher's Stone.

i have had this enduring interest in making a typical suburban home as self-sufficient as possible, just as an engineering exercise;
a micro-biosphere.

anyway, thanks for the articles (and the anime recommendations :)

Posted by: cjm at March 24, 2005 8:19 PM
Just artificially boost the price of gas and the rest takes care of itself.
Nice to let your inner statist out for a little while, eh, oj? Posted by: Kirk Parker at March 24, 2005 9:02 PM

Mr. den Beste:

I learned a great deal from your writing, and am eternally indebted to you.

Very Respectfully,

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at March 24, 2005 11:24 PM

Now that I know that one of my masters is watching, I shall be have more gravitas in my postings in these precincts.

Every time we have one of these discussions, I want to scream: "There are no technological solutions to political problems."

We actually have all the technology we need right now to replace all imported oil. Coal can be processed into oil at about $35/bbl. But who in his right mind would try to build a plant. Lawyers, "enviromental activists" and NIMBYS will do their best to make it impossible. Drill for oil? Not evem in the most remote and desolate places on the continent, which half the United States Senate belives to be a shrine more sacred than the Holy Sepulcure.

500mpg Car? not likely and probably un-economic. A Toyota Prius gets about 50mpg real world. In a typical year (12,000 mi.) it would use 240 gal. of gas @2.50$/gal. that's $600. If you doubled that mileage, you would save $300, which has a PV of about $3,600 over the life of the car. (of course that means the total PV of the fuel bill is $7,200, as you head to higher mpg you have few dollars left to play with) Will $3,600 buy the additional technology to boost mileage that much? I am very doubtful.

The problem is that the modern automobile is highly evolved. We could wack weight out of it by using carbon fiber and save gas, but I have a hard time believing we can do enough economically to get to much higher fuel saving levels than are currently available.

Of course, all that jiggery really doesn't save much. What would really save fuel is getting people to move closer to their jobs, change their shopping and entertainment patterns and make simlar changes to their lives. But only a big gas tax could motivate them in that direction.

Like i said.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 25, 2005 4:39 AM

Hawaii, whose residents have a living standard (as measured in dollars) around half the rest of the country, already are paying $2.69/gal and consumption is going up, not down.

I don't know what that means for the country as a whole if you want to drive down consumption by raising taxes, but at a rough guess, it looks as if you're talking about $20/gal gas.

I bet that's greeted with even less enthusiasm than giving your retirement money to the next Ken Lay has been.

One thing to notice is that if you do it in steps, like boiling a frog, people don't mind very much.

You might have thought that a rise of a dollar a gallon over a couple years would have made gas prices a political issue out here. In fact, it is less of an issue now than when the price went from around 95 cents to $1.05.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at March 25, 2005 2:53 PM

Yes, prices are still low by historic standards and by comparison to every other nation. We need to crank them to get any effect.

Posted by: oj at March 25, 2005 3:04 PM