This is an email I just sent to Orson Scott Card in response to his most recent World Watch column posted to The Ornery American, one of his websites. If he responds (maybe, probably not), I’ve asked for permission to post the response here.
I like a lot of what you had to say in this column, especially about the problems with using grain crops as a source of ethanol, but there were a few other things in the column that didn’t work as well.
One is quibbly — fuel cells are not an energy storage system, but the hydrogen they burn is. There is at least a theoretical possibility of fuel cells that can run on hydrocarbons.
You’re correct about nukes, definitely. The problems with nukes are much more political than technical.
Alternative energy sources include a number of possibilities for continuing to run cars similar to what we use now. One is ethanol produced by breaking down cellulose, rather than by fermenting sugars. A new source of that cellulose mentioned on Slashdot was cyanobacteria. Another is bio-diesel, particularly made from high-oil algae that can be fed on waste-water and grown in desert areas. When put together with the possibilities of plug-in hybrid, these preserve the possibility of a petroleum-free car system not entirely different from what we’ve got now.
And methane will remain an option in the future, since it’s produced by decaying matter — there are projects springing up to produce electricity at farms from methane digested from manure.
What is very clear is that our society, as the president has said, and as you’ve clearly pointed out, is going to have to wean itself from its dependence on cheap foreign oil, because, while oil isn’t running out, cheap oil is. You are correct that we need to invest in different energy sources, particularly for our transportation system, and that will involve some transition pain. It is unclear to me what gasoline price will have to be reached for Americans to be willing to acknowledge the need to change, rather than blaming the problem on George Bush or his evil oil buddies. So I agree with your major points, even though I have a problem with some of your details along the way.