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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

An Alcoholic Energy Solution

By Carl Milsted, Jr.

New Year’s Eve has come and gone: a night of drunken revelry – and drunken drivers. Which brings me to the subject of Peak Oil.

According to the Peak Oil theorists, we are rapidly approaching the halfway point of world oil consumption. Since the second half of the world’s oil supply is harder to get to than the first half, we can expect production to taper off long before the oil runs out. If the Peak Oil folks are right, the tapering off could begin any day now.

And this is where things get silly. Many in the Peak Oil community are saying that the drop in oil production will cause civilization to collapse, that we not only won’t be able to drive, but we won’t have plastics, medicines, or even coal (since oil burning machines are used to mine coal).

On the other hand, the fear mongers are correct in noting that many of the proposed alternatives to fossil based oil are inadequate. The “hydrogen economy” is very impractical, dangerous, and expensive. Running our massive auto fleet on ethanol from corn would be devastating to the environment. Upgrading our public transportation system to European standards would be a gigantic capital expense for a bankrupt government, and would make this country more vulnerable to terrorists to boot.

There are easier solutions.

Consider the typical American car. It is three to four thousand pounds of steel with a power plant capable of accelerating all that steel to interstate highway speeds in less than ten seconds. This is incredible overkill for propelling one or two people down a city street. Under city conditions, the giant power plant is barely running above idle; most of the energy burned is just for keeping the engine running.

For someone living inside a city, the performance characteristics of a modern automobile are unnecessary 90+ percent of the time. A vehicle with Model T capabilities would be quite adequate. There is no need to surpass 30 mph on a city street.

Now, imagine building a car with Model T performance using modern materials – say, a tubular aluminum frame with a fabric covering – and a modern, efficient small engine. Such a vehicle could be propelled with ethanol or vegetable oil without over-farming the planet.

But who would buy such a vehicle today? You would still need another vehicle for highway driving, or carrying more passengers and/or cargo. Shared ownership or rent-as-needed would work, but they are hardly worth the inconvenience when gasoline is under $3 per gallon.

This brings me back to the subject of New Year’s Eve. It is rather dangerous putting a drunk behind the wheel of a 3000 pound car powered by 200 horses. But what about putting that drunk behind the wheel of a vehicle that is 1/5 the weight, and capable of going no faster than half interstate speed? This is a twenty fold reduction in kinetic energy! We could even equip our city cars with crushable foam bumpers or exterior air bags.

To make such vehicles popular now, we need a separate licensing class. Make the vehicles illegal for highway use, but legal in the hands of those we don’t trust with a full featured automobile: the drunk, the reckless and the aged.

So remember this New Year’s Eve that there is hope for the future, despite the dire predictions of Peak Oil. That hope is staring you right in the face, albeit blurrily.

Carl Milsted is a senior editor for The Free Liberal.

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