Recently a friend gave me a copy of a January 22, 1973 issue of Newsweek.  The cover title was “The Energy Crisis”.  It’s interesting to look back and see how things have changed; or, to be more accurate, not changed.

Technological optimism prevailed back then as it does today.  Here are a few excerpts from the article concerning nuclear power:

“Any crisis policy would eventually be doomed, of course, unless technology produces important new energy sources.  And, happily, the outlook looks brighter after the ‘70s.  By the mid-1980s, nuclear power, paced by the exotic fast-breeder reactor, will begin taking the load off fossil fuels.  Nuclear energy may produce 13% of all U.S. power in 1985 vs. less than 1% today and then is expected to boost its share to 26% by 2000”.

“The fast-breeder reactor will have a major impact because, in seeming defiance of the laws of physics, it produces more atomic fuel-plutonium-than it burns.”

The article stated that experts in nuclear energy were confident in the success of fast-breeder reactors. As of 2009, there are no fast-breeder reactors in the U.S. and it’s questionable whether fast breeder reactors will ever provide energy for the U.S.  The Clinch River experimental reactor, in Tennessee, was shut down years ago because of exorbitant costs and technical problems. Rather than providing 26% of our energy needs in 2000, nuclear power provided about 8% of total U.S. energy demand.

In terms of oil shale, the article stated:

“By 1985, rising prices of crude oil and natural gas may force two other promising developments onto the market–oil produced from shale so abundant in the American West, and gas produced from coal fields.  There are pilot plants using both processes, but so far their output is too costly to compete.  Shale oil, for instance, would cost about $7.50 a barrel vs. the present price of $3.25-$3.50 for a barrel of crude.”

Years ago I read congressional testimony from an executive of Exxon who at the time, ~1980, expressed the belief that by 2000, the U.S. would be producing 2 mb/d of oil from oil shale and 8 mb/d by 2025. As of 2009, no oil is produced from oil shale and it’s likely that no significant amount will be produced in the next 16 years.

The article mentioned atomic fusion and hydrogen, giving the impression that both would be a possibility at some point in the not-so-distant future.  It’s not unusual to see similar statements today in media articles about energy.

It’s nice to be optimist, but it’s wise to be realistic when it comes to energy.  There is considerable optimism these days, at least among some people, about cellulosic ethanol and oil from algae.  In my view, these energy sources will only go as far as government subsidies take them.

There is also considerable optimism about electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.  Electric vehicles have been around since ~1890 and were fairly common in the early 1900s.  The problems that have historically dogged electric vehicles have not suddenly gone away and I think those problems will limit their extent of market penetration in the future.

First, electric vehicles have been and continue to be expensive relative to petroleum-based vehicles.  Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will be expensive as well.

In a Time magazine article (Sept. 29, 2008), Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman at GM, was quoted as saying that GM hoped to bring the cost of the Chevy Volt (plug-in hybrid electric) down to $40,000 or less.  Even if GM gets the price of the Volt to less than $40,000 (assuming they ultimately produce it), it won’t be much less.  When taxes, options and freight are added in, the price could be considerably above $40,000.

If we assume a price of $40,000 for a Volt, how does that compare to a Nissan Versa in economic terms.  According to the Nissan website, the Versa can be purchased for $10,000 so there is a $30,000 difference between a Versa and a Volt.  The government is supposed to give a $7,500 tax credit for the Volt so a Volt would cost a buyer $32,500, or about three times that of a Versa.

Let’s assume you buy a Versa and drive an average of 10,000 miles a year, the car gets an average of 30 miles/gallon and the average price of gasoline over the time period you own it is $4.00/gallon.  How long can you drive the Versa before you have spent $22,500 (the difference between $32,500 and $10,000) on gasoline?  The answer is nearly 17 years.  That’s considerably longer than most people own a vehicle.

I expect a practical electric vehicle to cost at least $35,000-40,000, if not more.  Electric vehicles will be out of the price range for a significant portion of the American population.  There will be relatively wealthy people who will buy electric vehicles and rave about how wonderful the vehicles are, but that won’t convince those individuals who can’t afford an electric vehicles to buy one.

Many people who buy motor vehicles buy them with some expectation that they can use them for carrying and towing purposes.  Electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will not be vehicles you’ll want for towing purposes because of a lack of power, and their carrying capacity will be seriously limited.  I may change my view of the towing capacity of electric vehicles when I see one pulling a snowmobile trailer with 6-8 snowmobiles up to the UP from southeastern Michigan as I often see with diesel-powered vehicles.

There are also the problems of range, especially when various electrical accessories are used, and battery charging time.

Whether people want to accept it or not, oil has significant advantages compared to alternatives.  Two advantages that most people aren’t aware of are that oil distillates have very high enthalpy of combustion values and that distillates have high energy densities.

Enthalpy of combustion is an important factor related to the energy density of a fuel and the fuel’s power capacity.  Energy density is an important factor in defining how far a vehicle can go on a tank of fuel and how large the tank has to be.

Table 1 displays enthalpy of combustion values for various fuels.


Enthalpy of Combustion (Kilojoules/mole)









Based upon the data in Table 1, it would take about 18 times more hydrogen molecules, 8 times more methanol molecules and 4 times more ethanol molecules to obtain the same amount of energy as obtained from a molecule of octane.

Table 2 displays energy density values for various fuels. The high energy density of oil components makes them particularly valuable as transportation fuels due to the small volume required for containing high energy content.

Table 2: Energy Densities for Common Fuels

Fuel Source

Energy Density (kJ/gallon)

% Relative to Octane









H2 (at 5000 psi and 25.0oC)



CH4 (at 5000 psi and 25.0oC)



The energy densities of H2 and CH4 are much lower than octane because they are gases.  In gases, the molecules are much farther apart than in a liquid, even when gases are compressed to very high pressure.  The low energy densities of gaseous fuels make them poor choices for transportation applications even if they are compressed to very high pressures.  For gaseous-fuel-powered vehicles, the fuel tanks must be much larger, the vehicle must get much better mileage per unit of fuel, the vehicle must be refilled more frequently or some combination of the three must be used.

There is considerable talk now about making the U.S. energy independent.  Although it’s a laudable goal, I don’t see that happening without major changes in the American lifestyle.  With declining future U.S. oil production, it would not be surprising to see the percentage of U.S. oil imports increase even if we manage to reduce our oil consumption rate in coming years.  That is a problem that most, if not all, politicians would prefer not to admit to the American public.

7 thoughts on “Then and Now”

  1. “… With declining future U.S. oil production, it would not be surprising to see the percentage of U.S. oil imports increase even if we manage to reduce our oil consumption rate in coming years. That is a problem that most, if not all, politicians would prefer not to admit to the American public.”

    Kind of shocking to read this in 2009. I would remind readers that US oil production had peaked a couple of years before the cited 1973 article was written and that President Nixon called attention to our need to import ever increasing volumes oil in his (first, I think) State of the Union Address.

    Many of us knew that geology, thermodynamics and arithmetic forty years ago foretold an energy dilemma. In these last forty years it’s gotten far more intractable – greater demand from billions more people. Our great hope was for fusion power generation, 50 years off in 1950, still 50 years off in 2009. And population increases have, and continue to more than swamp any progress we might have realized from alternatives.

  2. Forget about oil. .

    Not only is it becoming increasing more difficult to find oil, forcing us to spend more to drill further and deeper, it is an economically unreliable energy source ..subject to price manipulation by oil cartels, commodities speculators and energy companies.

    Currently the world’s energy is derived from either oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar, hydroelectric, wind or geothermal.

    Here are, what I think, the qualities we should require of the ideal energy source for the next 1000 years.

    Whatever it is should be….

    1. unlimited-one that will NEVER “run out”
    2. universal-so abundant that all countries will have access to it and not just a few lucky countries who can hold the rest of the world “hostage”
    3. cheap-an energy source that even the poorest of people will have easy access to.
    4. clean-any future energy source should not contribute to a worsening of our environment
    5.consumer empowered-an energy source that will free people from dependence on third parties like utility companies to set the price and method of delivery.

    Oil doesn’t make it on any one of the five points.

    This is the 21st century. The internal combustion engine is over 100 years old. Time to move into the future

  3. Our inability to see a problem of immense proportions because we are immersed in the ‘now and present’ is mind-boggling to say the least. But, such a short-coming is not so amazing when we see it as our species’ evolutionary short-coming.

    Would like to bring to your notice an electric car that is made in India and retails at about 8-10 K Dollars. Not that this is going to save our economies from where they are headed, but it is out there.

    More information available here:

    Suyodh Rao

  4. When considering electric cars, it’s important to consider that not every car will be replaced…or even needs to be replaced, in order to have a positive impact on CO2 and fossil fuel consumption.

    So saying electric cars aren’t going to succeed because some people want to tow 6 snowmobiles up a mountain is missing the point a bit. There are tens of millions of cars that can be “replaced” very easily with electric cars, as their requirements are much more limited and suited for current capabilities.

  5. The current public comparison of vehicles fueled by natural gas or batteries, to vehicles fueled by petroleum, is incomplete. People compare natural gas or electric cars to existing gasoline or diesel vehicles because these liquid fuels are still cheap and not yet rationed. Today, cars run on liquid fuels are superior, but in 10 years, when gas cost $10 a gallon, and you are limited to 10 gallons per week so as to limit social unrest resulting from only the wealthy being able to drive if they were allowed to consume all the fuel they wanted, most people will be glad to have any type of vehicle that they can actually drive. They will be grateful to fill-up the natural gas car every day, if necessary, rather than have to walk to the nearest public bus pick-up point in the snow to get to work. As the price of oil starts to explode in the next decade, it will be interesting to see how long it will take the public to realize that without rationing, the rich will still be able to use as much fuel as they wish, while most people struggle just to get to work. How long will the private jets and yachts each keep consuming thousands of gallons of fuel daily, as life gets tougher and tougher for the vast majority of people? The excuses that Congress comes up with to prevent their millionaire friends from suffering any inconvenience will be fascinating, as will those coming from the cable tv business network bunch. Things could get very ugly, very fast. You’ll see.

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