Running on empty - Page 7

The San Francisco Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force explores life after fossil fuels — an era that may be coming sooner than most people think

Members of the public are strongly encouraged to attend.



In the event of sudden petroleum shortages, how do the alternatives stack up?

Ethanol: The Republican choice for weaning the nation off oil is a lucrative venture for red state constituents in the Midwest. However, the drawbacks are numerous. Corn ethanol requires almost as much oil energy to produce as it is meant to replace. Furthermore, it will require 4.8 billion — yes, billion — acres of corn to match the world's current rate of annual oil consumption.

Hydrogen fuel cells: Touted by conservatives as some kind of miracle fuel because its tailpipe by-product is simply water vapor, hydrogen is a long way from being a viable fuel for cars, if that's even possible. It takes even more energy to produce than ethanol and can explode in collisions.

Nuclear: Expensive and unpopular, nuclear power faces numerous logistical hurdles (particularly safety and long-term waste storage) that make it infeasible in the short and middle terms.

Natural gas: A major source of current United States energy consumption (25 percent nationally), natural gas is extremely difficult to ship, making importation from far-off sources impractical. Its supplies are running low in the US, and this nonrenewable fossil fuel is likely to parallel oil in its decline.

Wind: This clean power source is being quickly developed around the world as a major generator of electricity. Currently in the US, it accounts for about 1 percent of domestic electricity production, so offsetting the loss of fossil fuel plants would require a massive commitment. Downsides include the danger to migrating birds and the fact that sometimes the wind doesn't blow.

Solar: This is Marion King Hubbert's choice for replacing fossil fuels. It is a renewable generator of electricity, yet the shortcomings so far have been with finding more efficient and less toxic battery technology to store it. But improving research and strong consumer demand for solar panels point to a promising future.