WHAT IS ENLIGHTENMENT: There is a lot of talk
in the news these days about “peak oil”—the
idea that we will soon hit or may already be hitting the
worldwide limit of our oil production capacity. This milestone
has numerous and far-reaching implications for the future of
life on the planet. Do you think that we're reaching peak oil?
And if so, what can we do about it in terms of shifting our
energy use over the next decades?
JOHN PETERSEN: Inevitably the economical discovery and
extraction of oil will peak. The only question is when. Some
people think it's happened already; some people think it will
happen thirty years from now, but we do know, at least, that it
won't be as long as a hundred years from now. When the peak does
happen, it will begin to usher in a new world for all of us that
could evolve in a number of directions; perhaps a couple of them
could exist in parallel.
I believe we're moving toward an all-electric world, where
everything—transportation, heating, communications,
etcetera—is run on electricity. The only question then
becomes: How do you produce the electricity? Right now, we are
on the verge of a revolution in solid-state chips, heating and
cooling chips. If you want to produce cool air, you blow air
across some highly efficient, electronic cool devices, and to
produce heat all you do is to reverse the polarity of the
electricity going through these devices. In laboratories, these
devices are far more efficient in heating and cooling than the
current mechanical systems with compressors and pumps, and they
are many times more efficient than the present solid-state
devices that are used for cooling. It's a technology that has
ramifications for managing the climate in buildings, vehicles,
and many other devices. Soon we'll be in a situation with no
pumps and no belts—we'll have fans and that's about it.
So first, in terms of space heating and cooling, we're on
our way to an electric world. And second, in terms of
large-scale transportation, almost everything is electric now.
The United States Navy has said that all of their future ships
will be electric. They'll produce the electricity with jet
engines driving generators. The same is the case for modern
railroad locomotives, of course.
WIE: But that still uses oil.
PETERSEN: Yes, they use jet and diesel fuels. But in
time you can potentially swap to different kinds of fuel sources
quite easily—like biodiesel for diesel engines, which is
derived from biological feed stocks, for example. Couple this
with hybrid and perhaps fuel-cell-powered cars and you can see
that in the transportation sector we're already going toward
Two major sectors—transportation and
heating—consume most of our energy, to the tune of at
least eighty or ninety percent of all the petroleum products
that are used in this country. The rest of the petroleum is used
for high-valued things like plastics.
For transportation, the shift to an alternative fuel should
be one that works with the same kind of infrastructure that we
have now—the tanks, cars, trucks, pumps, gas stations,
etc. We need a liquid fuel that can be handled in much the same
way that gasoline is now. But before we choose one, there are a
few other considerations that should be in the mix. First, let's
make it clean, so it doesn't negatively affect the environment.
Second, let's do it for national security. What I mean is that
we're doing this in part because of the problems that we've got
in the Middle East and we want to get ourselves extracted from
there. Third, let's make sure the change has positive economic
implications. And finally, we'd like the fuel not to be toxic.
If you go through all of those considerations, what you end up
with is ethanol.
WIE: Ethanol? That's the one fuel that meets all
of those criteria?
PETERSEN: Yes. Ethanol, which is wood alcohol, is the
best choice. That's what we said in the national energy strategy
that the Arlington Institute put together for the Secretary of
Defense. Interesting little side note—do you know why all
cars are not burning alcohol right now?
WIE: No. Why not?
PETERSEN: Henry Ford wanted all cars to run on
alcohol. But it was during prohibition, and the government
didn't want a bunch of stills all over the place producing
alcohol. So with the influence of, I'm sure, Mr. Rockefeller and
some other folks, they decided that the fuel would be oil-based
gasoline. But the fact of the matter is that every automobile on
the road today, every automobile, can burn up to
fifteen percent alcohol or ethanol in a mixture with gasoline.
And for a minimal manufacturing cost—something like thirty
dollars per car—every new vehicle could operate burning up
to eighty-five percent ethanol.
So what you have is a potential instantaneous market. Every
new car could become a flexible fuel vehicle, an FFV, as they're
called. Ford already has a fleet of seven or eight FFV vehicles,
and they don't cost any more than the regular ones. This is easy
to do. This could be one decision by the President of the United
States: from now on, if you're going to sell a car in this
country, it has to be a flexible fuel vehicle. I think the
manufacturers would all step up and say, “Yes, sir,”
because it wouldn't cost anything. So you could produce a real
market right away. Already there are more than four million
flexible fuel vehicles on the road.
WIE: How is ethanol produced?
PETERSEN: You can produce ethanol through
distillation, but right now that uses a lot of energy and
electricity because it's heated up during the distillation
process. So it can't compete with gasoline, and therefore
ethanol production is subsidized. The farm states love that
because they can get subsidies for growing a lot of corn.
WIE: It's made from corn now?
PETERSEN: Yes, corn and sugar beets and sugar cane
waste. But it could be made from almost anything, any
cellulosic biomass. Do you know what the largest volume export
is that the United States produces? Old corrugated cardboard
cartons. And we send all of that wood fiber offshore, because we
don't have anything else to do with it. All of that cardboard
can be turned into alcohol. In the future, we can use biotech
bugs that will chew this stuff and turn it into alcohol as a
byproduct without all of the expensive costs that are now part
of the distillation process.
WIE: These would be live biotech bugs?
PETERSEN: They're biological catalysts called enzymes.
It's a clean process because it doesn't produce the effluents
and other things that have come out of the refining process.
More than that, ethanol burns clean. The only thing you get is a
little water out of the tailpipe of the car. From an economic
point of view it's a wonderful thing. Even in the short term,
suddenly you're creating immense numbers of new jobs for people
in the farm areas, because they have something to grow that
takes the place of what is otherwise a huge import. From a
security point of view, you domesticize your fuel production,
and you do it in a renewable form. We've got the numbers to show
that this is completely doable, and over a period of around
seven to ten years, we could carve a really big chunk out of our