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« Lessons From "The Surge" | Main | Back In The Sunshine State »

Our Alcoholic Future

I haven't had much to say about Bob Zubrin's new book, other than to point to reviews of it. This is mostly because I haven't read it, or even the excerpt in the current issue of The New Atlantis. Well, here are a couple more. Neither Shubber Ali, or Ken Silber are that impressed.

Posted by Rand Simberg at December 29, 2007 01:41 PM
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" As for nefarious control of our government by those OPEC baddies, someone should just remind both him and Bob Zubrin which PAC has the single biggest influence in Congress. Hint: it ainít the Saudis." -- Shubber Ali.

Oh boy, I can see what Ali is 'hinting' at and it ain't pretty.

Posted by at December 29, 2007 04:42 PM

" As for nefarious control of our government by those OPEC baddies, someone should just remind both him and Bob Zubrin which PAC has the single biggest influence in Congress. Hint: it ainít the Saudis." -- Shubber Ali.

Oh boy, I can see what Ali is 'hinting' at and it ain't pretty.

Posted by Brad at December 29, 2007 04:43 PM

I'm not sure Shubber is actually criticizing Zubrin's book, but rather a fawning review of the book in Energy Daily (linked in Shubber's post), with a swipe at another, unrelated Zubrin book (Entering Space).

Shubber's other criticism is that the politically influential auto and oil lobbies would be against Zubrin's proposal, not just the Saudis which Zubrin emphasizes. That doesn't seem to me to be a point against the proposal.

Actually, if Zubrin's description is accurate, the U.S. auto industry, which is ahead in flex-fuel technology, wouldn't be much against it (especially if it were subsidized). He claims it would cost about $100 per vehicle (for engine flex-fuel certification, sensors, more robust fuel lines), which doesn't seem like a lot compared to the much more expensive items we and they are getting (and will continue to get) in other automotive energy mandates (not to mention gas prices).

Having read the book, I think there are some flaws in Zubrin's argument, which I'm sure Shubber could point out, but the ones I see don't seem to take away much from Zubrin's central point. It would be great to see a criticism from Shubber (and Sam Dinkins, and Rand) on the book itself (which is actually a very quick and easy read).

Silber's review doesn't seem all that negative to me. Yes, of course the book is written in Zubrin's "we absolutely have to do exactly this" style - I expected and braced myself for that when I picked up the book. Here's Silber's main criticism:

"Much of what he says about energy (as well as about Mars) is valuable and thought-provoking. But having the government pick alcohol fuels as the energy future requires a lot of faith in the ability of experts and bureaucrats to get it right. I'd rather see a policy (such as a carbon tax) that spurs multiple alternative energy sources to compete, rather than assuming we know the best choice in advance."

This isn't exactly what Zubrin is advocating. He's advocating mandating vehicles sold in the U.S. support gasoline, methanol, and ethanol. He's not saying the government should pick alcohol fuels (the methanol and ethanol) as the energy future. He's saying consumers should have the choice to pick gasoline, methanol, ethanol, or various mixtures thereof, which he claims is the only realistic short-term (and he wants short-term) energy independence option. That doesn't mean gasoline would go away. It doesn't mean you couldn't have hybrid flex-fuel engines or whatever - just no gasoline-only engines. (Personally I'd tweak Zubrin's language a bit to specifically allow other non-gasoline options).

I agree that a carbon tax or a gas tax or tariff would tend to help all non-gas solutions fairly. I'm not against this, and I doubt Zubrin is either (he definitely wants some tariff protection against the cartel wiping out the alcohol fuel industry which he thinks it can do at a whim otherwise by boosting production). I don't like taxes, so I'd want a compensating tax reduction (tolls, whatever). The problem with that is it takes quite a bit of such prodding (compared to a fairly mild mandate) to get people to demand alcohol capability in cars when there are no pumps they can use, or to get gas stations to install the pumps when only a few % of cars can use it. Zubrin's mandate would seem to break that Catch-22 with a minimum of disruption.

By the way, I'm a space fan, but not a "Mars firster" by any means - I'm more of a "CATS firster" or perhaps "boring comsat firster"). I'm not convinced by "Case for Mars", and my gut instinct is against mandates. I'd actually like to hear a convincing argument against this particular mandate - I'm all ears - but I haven't heard one that's even close yet, and I don't know enough economics to devise one on my own. Sam? Shubber? Rand?

If anyone wants a ~1 hour summary of the book, C-SPAN has one:

http://www.c-spanarchives.org/library/index.php?main_page=product_video_info&products_id=200600-1

So does the Space Show:

http://www.thespaceshow.com/detail.asp?q=854

Posted by red at December 29, 2007 06:44 PM

Geopolitical arguments aside, Zubrin's proposal is a pretty modest one. It would certainly be easier to implement than a lot of other ideas currently being floated. I like the idea of being able to pump any combination of gasoline, methanol, or ethanol into my tank. Why let the petroleum monopoly stand? Ultimately, I'd like to see every car on the road be either a flex-fuel plug-in hybrid or a diesel plug-in hybrid (capable of burning standard or biodiesel.)

Let's have some choices.

Posted by Phil Bowermaster at December 29, 2007 10:02 PM

I went to hear Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering at Michigan State University, talk in Madison, Wisconsin about the state of ethanol. His point is that cellulosic ethanol is the future of ethanol, it is here now, the reason we are doing corn ethanol now is that the cellulose process is more expensive, the corn ethanol isn't as bad as you think when you consider that it is converting non-liquid fuel energy (coal and natural gas energy) into liquid fuel for transportation, and that cellulosic ethanol will be economic above about half the current price of oil as the processing plants progress down the learning curve, and our modern oil economy, where refining is only a small slice of the price of gas is the result of the chemical engineering industry having gone down a similar learning curve for petroleum processing.

He said that the December 17, 2007 issue of Chemical and Engineering News should have an article where he debates ethanol of all types with a colleague of his who is an ethanol skeptic.

As to a mandate and forcing something on the auto industry, on one hand, one doesn't have a crystal ball and one can end up betting on the wrong technology. On the other hand, there are certain things that require a government mandate to go forward -- the biggie was taking the lead out of gas, and the auto companies were skeptical and even resistant back in the day. Given that 99 percent of car engines are computer controlled using O2 sensors already, the tri-flex fuel mandate seems like a smaller leap than unleaded gas.

Posted by Paul Milenkovic at December 30, 2007 07:08 AM


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