The Bottomless Well?


I recently read a book entitled The Bottomless Well written by Peter Huber and Mark Wills. The book is about energy and written from a contrarian point of view. I enjoyed it because it was well written and contained lots of data related to energy usage and trends. It was obviously meant to be provocative because its premise is that energy is not scarce, the price of energy doesn’t matter very much, and ‘waste’ of energy is both necessary and desirable. With heresies like that, I figured it would be like watching a train wreck in progress. I could hardly put it down.

There are several factors at work today that make a book like this particularly timely. The first is that energy is at the center of a heated political debate. This is driven primarily by the fear that human activity is causing a change to the climate due to our use of fossil fuels. These fuels release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from sources that had been buried for millions of years, and that has the potential to affect our global climate. Burning fossil fuels can change concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas, and even a change of a few degrees on the climate could make the earth inhospitable for humans. The danger is that if there is something like an atmospheric ‘tipping point’ which we are approaching, we won’t know about it until it’s too late. There is evidence that the CO2 concentrations have been increasing ever since we began using hydrocarbons as fuel and that the concentrations are higher now than at any time in history.

Another part of this debate is that we are involved in a war to attempt to stabilize countries in a region that controls the world’s largest deposits of oil. Many people think that this war is unnecessary and should be abandoned, and we would be able to do so if we were not so dependent on the unimpeded flow of oil from that region.

The book starts out with 7 ‘heresies’ and then proceeds to support them with evidence. These heresies are:

  • The cost of energy we use has less and less to do with the cost of the fuel.
  • “Waste” is virtuous.
  • The more efficient our technology, the more energy we consume.
  • The competitive advantage in manufacturing is now swinging decisively back toward the United States.
  • Human demand for energy is insatiable.
  • The raw fuels are not running out.
  • America’s relentless pursuit of high grade energy does not add chaos to the global environment, it restores order.
  • The parts of the book I liked best were those showing analytical data, much of it in the form of graphs of quantities such as consumption rates, efficiencies, power densities, etc. Even if you don’t agree with any of the ‘heresies’ the authors espouse, you’d be hard pressed to find a more concentrated form of hard data related to energy.

    The book doesn’t really take sides on the issue of global warming put mentions that anyone concerned with global warming should be more accepting of nuclear energy. I found that to be at odds with the way many environmentalists feel about nuclear energy. In my experience, I have found most, but not all, environmentalists are less enthused about nuclear energy than they are about increased consumption of fossil fuels. It would take a major crisis to get approval to build a new nuclear plant in the U.S. and the ones that do exist are beginning to reach the end of their design lives. The book indicated that the amount of uranium reserves exceed those of coal reserves. Coal reserves are currently estimated to be about 275 years in the U.S. at current consumption rates. But it doesn’t take much of an increase per year to reduce that number. For example, if we increase consumption at a rate of 3% per year, which is the average historical increase, the coal reserves fall to about 80 years. However, accounting for nuclear energy reserves is a complex issue which I’ll discuss in a future posting.

    Energy can be a difficult subject to wrap one’s mind around. But the book does a great job by showing in fine detail how much energy humans consume. Humanity consumes about 400 Quads (quadrillion BTUs) of energy per year and it’s rising annually. This is a lot of energy, but is only about .02% of the amount of energy that arrives to the earth from the sun each year.

    Although the U.S. comprises about 5% of the world’s population, we consume approximately one quarter of the world’s energy. A lot of people may find this alarming, even revolting, and something that must be corrected. But it’s important to note that as we strive to reduce our per capita energy consumption levels to better match that of other nations, the rest of the world is steadily increasing its per capita level of energy consumption as other countries modernize their own standards of living. So the overall result is that demand for energy is rising.

    A concept that came up over and over again was the fact that most of the energy is wasted as it is converted and used for its intended purpose. One of the most eye-opening diagrams in the book is the ‘energy squid’ first published in 1937 and updated many times since then, a version of which is shown below. It shows the flow of energy in the U.S. from start to finish and you can indeed see that most of it ends up wasted. It gives you a sense of how much energy is used just to ‘purify’ energy itself. For example, conversion of coal to electricity loses most of its thermal energy to waste heat, somewhere about 60%, which cannot be easily recovered. It also takes energy to mine and transport the coal to where it will be used. We accept this energy loss because electricity is a much more valuable form of energy than coal. For example, you can reshape the cornea of an eye with a laser. That requires electricity. You can’t do it with coal alone. So we shouldn’t be focused solely on the efficiency of energy conversion. If we do, the result could be to outlaw useful technology like lasers because they are not very ‘efficient’ if you consider efficiency simply as a ratio of energy output divided by energy input.

    The ‘Energy Squid’ showing energy flow in the U.S.
    Click on image to see larger version of it.

    Automotive engines have similar energy losses. About 65% or more of gasoline’s energy is lost in waste heat. This is simply a limitation of internal combustion engines. Also, when you take into consideration that the end result is often transporting a single person, you can make an argument that the energy to move the entire vehicle’s gross weight is wasted because if you’re moving nearly 3000 lbs of vehicle to transport a 170 lb. person, you’re wasting over 90% of the energy. So ‘efficiency’ is not a very easy concept to describe, let alone mandate or regulate. You could also make the argument that a lot of transportation, such as leisure travel, is unnecessary and therefore inefficient and should be outlawed.

    Another thing to consider is that when you make something more efficient, it lowers its cost and people end up using more of it because they can afford more of it. So chasing after efficiency often results in increased overall consumption.

    I think it is important to listen to people whose viewpoints are well researched, yet sometimes contradictory to my own. That’s how I learn. If you only pay attention to people telling you what you already know, or think that you know, you cannot become any better informed. So even if you are a self-proclaimed tree hugger, it would
    be a good idea to pick up this book and read it, so that you may better understand why everyone doesn’t believe the same things that you do. It may not change your point of view, but at least you’ll be able to evaluate the veracity of the logic behind the assertions the authors make in the book.

    Can ethanol be an aviation fuel?


    A few months ago I bought an engine for the Cozy that is a 200 HP version of the Lycoming IO-360. This engine produces about 20 HP more the standard 180 HP O-360 engine. In order to get to 200 HP, it has higher compression ratio and that requires the use of 100 octane fuel. Today, 100 octane fuel is available at most U.S. airports, but I worried about its continued availability in the future. Aviation fuel, or 100LL as it’s called, uses tetraethyl lead to increase the octane rating of fuel. Adding lead to auto fuel to enhance its octane used to be quite common but fell out of favor when it was found to distribute the lead, now recognized as a poison, into the atmosphere. Just about all countries in the world have discontinued the use of lead as an octane enhancer for auto fuel.

    I began to wonder what I might use for fuel in the future should leaded aviation fuel be outlawed, and my attention turned toward alcohol, ethyl alcohol, to be specific. It’s also called ethanol or grain alcohol and is used as an octane enhancer. It also makes gasoline burn more cleanly. Ethanol is the form of alcohol that you find in alcoholic drinks. Because of this, it is subject to liquor taxes. The only way to avoid paying liquor taxes is to add poison to it. If fuel was drinkable and available for a few dollars per gallon, it’s assumed that no one would bother buying beer, wine, or spirits. With that logic, it’s hard to understand why anyone would buy an 18-year-old bottle of scotch for $75 when Everclear can be had for $10. 🙂 This poisoning is called ‘denaturing’ and as long as it makes the alcohol undrinkable, just about anything can be used.

    It’s not unusual for auto fuel in the U.S. to contain 10% alcohol since most cars can run on fuel with this concentration of alcohol. It’s beginning to become available at 85% concentrations, called E85, but that requires that the fuel system is compatible with that level of alcohol concentration. Only a small number of vehicles manufactured over the past 10 years or so claim compatibilty with E85 and you can look up whether yours is compatible by searching for “E85 compatibility” on the Internet. Each year, more vehicles are introduced that will run on E85 or regular gasoline and these are referred to as ‘flexible-fuel’ vehicles. There’s even an effort underway to make an aviation grade ethanol called AGE-85 that is not without controversy.

    Back in the 1980s and 1990s when aviation fuel cost about twice as much per gallon as auto fuel, several efforts to qualify auto fuel in aircraft were conducted. They were targeted at older aircraft with low compression engines which were able to run on an aviation fuel called 80LL whose octane rating was close to regular unleaded auto gas. Quite a few aircraft were eligible to burn auto fuel, provided they purchased a placard called an ‘STC’ for about $200. Some airports actually began carrying it as a less expensive alternative to 100LL after 80LL went out of production. However, the tests to get approval for the STC were conducted before alcohol became a common additive to auto fuel. After it became commonplace to use alcohol as an additive, it was found that some aircraft had problems with it attacking the rubber seal materials in the fuel system. The entities that granted the STC, namely Peterson Aviation and the EAA, do not allow the use of auto fuel that contains alcohol. The octane enhancer of choice back in the 1980’s was MTBE, methyl teriary butyl ether, and it had no issues with fuel system compatibility. But it has subsequently fallen out of favor because it has environmental and health concerns. It has largely been replaced by ethanol. Adding ethanol has now become so common with auto fuel, and the difference in price between auto fuel and avgas is not as significant as it was in the 1980s so the popularity of using auto fuel in aircraft is beginning to wane.

    The IO-360 engine I mentioned earlier would not be a candidate for an auto fuel STC anyway because the octane rating of auto fuel available in the U.S. runs about 85-91 octane which is much too low and would damage an aircraft engine designed to run on 100 octane fuel. To get a fuel that had an octane rating around 100 would require using some additive. Otherwise, engine knock, also known as auto-ignition, would create multiple flame fronts that collide in the engine’s cylinders, increasing pressures and temperatures that over stress and damage the engine.

    It would appear that a solution to my concern would be to make the plane compatible with ethanol because it has an octane rating of 105. I recall seeing a group of experimental aircraft showing up at Oshkosh for many years now that all run on ethanol. They are known as the Vanguard Squadron and are shown in the image above. I tracked down one of their members, Dick Pearson, and he generously allowed me to pick his brain regarding his experience of using ethanol in an airplane. Dick has nearly 14 years of experience of using ethanol in 2 separate experimental aircraft that he flies as well as that of the other 4 aircraft in the Vanguard Squadron. He is quite a proponent of the fuel. He told me that there is a lot of controversy and misinformation floating around regarding ethanol. For example, there is a persistent belief that the energy that it takes to grow corn and convert it into ethanol exceeds the energy content of the resulting ethanol, giving it a negative energy balance. This is not true. The reason that this misconception persists is because natural gas is often used in the conversion process to provide heat for making alcohol from corn. But there’s a good reason for using natural gas for heat. The value of natural gas per BTU is much lower than it is for ethanol per BTU. It’s about a third the cost per BTU as ethanol. So even though one could use a portion of the ethanol to provide heat in the process that makes it, it’s not as economical as using natural gas for heat. It’s this business of using a fuel other than ethanol to help make ethanol that leads people to believe that it has a negative energy balance. It actually has a positive energy balance widely accepted to be around 1.34, or getting a third more energy out of the process than is put into it. That takes into consideration the energy required to fertilize, plant, irrigate, spray, harvest, transport, and convert the corn into alcohol.

    Energy balance is only part of the equation, since when you talk about energy you must consider more factors that the energy balance or cost/BTU. It’s also important to consider factors such as energy density, convenience, and fuel compatibility. This is particularly true when it comes to transportation fuels since there is high value to having a fuel that is compatible the existing engines. If energy balance and cost/BTU were the only measures of concern, we might see coal-fueled vehicles since its cost per BTU is about 10% of what we pay for gasoline.

    In Brazil where they make alcohol from sugar cane, they are able to burn the waste parts of the sugar cane called bagasse to generate the heat needed for the process. As a result, they get 10 times more energy from the sugar cane than is required to grow and convert the sugar cane to ethanol. This is similar to the energy balance expected with cellulosic alcohol.

    A number of companies are working on deriving ethanol from cellulosic plants instead of corn kernels. These materials include waste products such as wood chips, corn and wheat stalks, and other organic waste materials that have limited use today. In most cases, you have to pay someone to dispose of them. The processes that convert cellulose to alcohol are currently not mature enough to be cost competitive with making ethanol from higher-value materials like corn. However, there are a number of companies working to improve the processes and if they become competitive, it could reduce the cost of ethanol to be lower than gasoline in a direct fuel mileage comparison, and when that occurs, it has the potential to change everything.

    Some cellulose-to-alcohol processes are based on enzymes that can unlock the sugars in cellulose and convert it into alcohol using conventional fermentation. There is an ethanol plant in Canada already doing this as well as a few more under construction. There is a also a non-fermentation process developed by Range Fuels of Broomfield, Colorado that can convert cellulosic materials to alcohol. Range Fuels is building a cellulose-to-ethanol plant in Georgia that will be capable of producing 100 million gallons of ethanol a year from wood chips. I think this will substantially change the perception that ethanol is nothing but a farm subsidy, which is the view a lot of people have about it today. Can you imagine a lawn service where they reduce the fee if you let them take away the lawn clippings, leaves, and other yard waste? I think that would be a huge step in the direction of energy independence because recovering energy from local waste materials would reduce an energy supply chain that currently extends around the globe to a short loop within your own neighborhood. It would also reduce CO2 emissions because plants generally release their carbon back into the atmosphere in a relatively short time, and so instead of digging up carbon that has been buried for millions of years, we’d be able to use carbon that was essentially on its way back into the atmosphere anyway. [UPDATE 2014-02-26] Range Fuels burned through $234M in capital, about a third of it from taxpayers, before shutting down operations in 2011.

    There are a lot of competing and complementary renewable energy technologies under development including wind, solar, and biomass. I don’t think that there will be a single winner in the race to replace our convenient yet exhaustible fossil fuels. I feel a lot more optimistic about it after doing my own investigation of alternatives like ethanol instead of listening to pundits arguing for or against it, because it doesn’t take long for people to get emotional about their point of view when it comes to renewable energy. I guess that’s because mixing politics with science can be such a volatile combination. Now if only that volatility could be converted into usable energy our future would be secure!

    Cozy MKIV trailer


    A few guys made a 15 minute DVD for Aircraft Spruce, the company that now owns the plans for the Cozy MKIV. I saw the DVD at Oshkosh and it’s amazingly well made with lots of great aerial footage of the Cozy in flight. There is a short (~2.5 minute) downloadable trailer on the Cozy MKIV website of the DVD. You can also see it on YouTube:

    Learning to fly


    My friend Chris, who is 14 years old, asked me how to get started in aviation. When I was a kid, it was possible to go to any small airport and hang out there and chat with pilots and instructors who often spend their spare time at the FBO. I didn’t know that when I was young or I would have spent time there learning about airplanes and flying. FBO stands for ‘fixed base operator’, and it’s a business that takes care of things at the airport like selling fuel, managing a flight school, and may also have an aircraft repair operation. On larger airports, there may be several FBOs. On really small grass airstrips, you may not find any.

    Over the years, security at airports has become a concern, especially if it handles any commercial traffic so they’ve been fenced in. However, it’s still possible to get through the fence, usually by walking through the FBO’s office. Then you can walk out on the ramp looking at the airplanes if it doesn’t look like you’re up to something. You might get chased off, but if you tell them you love airplanes and just want to look around, they usually won’t bother you. Sometimes you can wander over to the hangars and chat with the pilots who like to tinker with airplanes in their spare time. This is especially true with pilots who build and fly experimental airplanes.

    I’ve heard stories about kids who paid for flying lessons by exchanging labor washing airplanes for aircraft rental and instructor time, although I’ve never personally met anyone who has done that. The cost of an hour’s plane rental can be as much as $100/hour or more and along with an instructor at another $40/hour, it would take a lot of minimum wage labor to work one’s way through pilot training. I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that it would take a lot of hours. When I was training nearly 20 years ago, the costs were about half of what they are today. Something that doubles in 20 years is increasing at an annual rate of around 3.5%, which the average rate of inflation. So the real cost of learning to fly hasn’t changed in all that time. I think you’ll find that to be the case for as far back as you look when it comes to flying expenses.

    If I were to give advice to someone today to minimize the cost of learning to fly, the first thing I’d recommend is to be born into a family that owns an airplane and have a dad who is an enthusiastic flight instructor. Failing that, I’d say to look for a local EAA chapter and find out when they have their meetings and attend one of them to meet some pilots. EAA people are the friendliest in aviation because they typically fly for the love of it and most of them are not rich. If they were rich, they’d probably just buy regular airplanes and not spend so much of their lives working on building them to save money. You can find EAA chapters in every major city in the U.S.

    EAA also sponsors a program called Young Eagles where members take kids ages 8-17 up for an introductory ride in an airplane for free. So far, more than 1.2 million Young Eagles have been flown. Each EAA chapter generally sponsors several Young Eagles rallies a year. You can also request a flight on the Young Eagles website.

    The minimum number of hours of training required to get a private pilot’s license in the U.S. is 40 hours, half of which must be flown with an instructor. There is no age limit on how early you may start your flight training and logging hours. However, you must be 16 to solo and 17 to receive your pilot certificate.

    If you do the calculations using the numbers I mentioned previously, namely $100/hour for aircraft rental and $40/hour for an instructor, you will come up with a minimum cost of around ($100*40) + ($40*20) = $4800 if you were able to finish in the minimum time. There will be other incidental costs too, like the study materials and the check ride fee. However, most people take more than 40 hours to be ready for a check ride. The last time I checked, the average was around 72 hours, so if you multiply $4800 by 72/40, you get about $8600. That’s a lot of money any way you look at it.

    A way to reduce this would be to get a Sport Pilot certificate, which was a topic of a previous blog post. That training requires only half the hours that a private pilot certificate requires. The only issue with the Sport Pilot is that it’s so new that Light Sport Aircraft and instructors who understand the rules may be hard to find. Still, it would be worth looking into it.

    To get a pilot certificate, you need to pass a written test and a practical (i.e., a flying) test. The preparation for the written test is often called ‘ground school’, because you can learn the material and pass it without every stepping into an airplane. I learned this material at the same time I was learning to fly. In retrospect, I think it would have been more efficient to have done the ground school first and passed the written test before I started flight training. You can do this for next to nothing because all the questions are available on the Internet and there are good study guides available from Jeppesen and Gleim to help you understand the material and test questions. You might also consider a ground school class at a local community college or flight school, especially if you think you’d benefit by having the material presented to you by an instructor.

    You can also stop at a flight school and ask for some old sectional maps. The ability to read and understand aviation maps is an important part of learning to fly. So studying aviation maps is time well spent. These maps expire every 6 months. The expired maps are usually available for free from an FBO or a pilot friend.

    I’d also spend as much time as possible using a flight simulator such as Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. You don’t need the latest and greatest version. The older versions are available for next to nothing and are very good for training yourself to be familiar with handling an airplane. A flight simulator will familiarize you with the instruments such as the Tachometer, Airspeed Indicator, Altimeter, Directional Gyro, and Artificial Horizon. Being able to hold an altitude and heading are critical piloting skills and with a simulator, it will teach you to scan the instruments to make sure you’re not climbing or descending or veering off course. It will also teach you how to properly trim an airplane which is absolutely vital for holding a heading and altitude.

    Having the written test under your belt and a lot of time in a flight simulator could help to prepare you for the practical test in the minimum time, potentially saving thousands of dollars.

    That’s probably enough for one posting. I will follow up with some other advice and tips on flight training in another posting…