Fuzzy, Oily, Windy Math

I ran across an article from December 2007 that sought to compare the cost of energy from eight sources. Here are those results, which should be taken with the grain of salt I will provide below.

For the amount of energy you receive from one gallon of gasoline (115,400 Btu), here are the purported relative costs based on gas at the pump selling for three bucks:

Hydropower $0.96
Wind $1.74
Geothermal $1.78
Biofuel $2.84
Gasoline $3.00     
Nuclear $3.92
Natural Gas $5.64*     
Solar $15.16    

I am already always skeptical of any study that tosses out numbers without a detailed sourcing of the data behind the numbers or conclusions. So I attempt to update these numbers for September 2009.  My source was the interweb.

First some caveats and only of few of the many I found. This comparison is the cost of an equivalent amount of energy and does not deal fairly well with delivering that energy. As in "cost of gas at the pump" or "electricity at the wall socket". The base value of gasoline is the at-the-pump price of $3 a gallon However, all of these energy sources have different distribution issues not the least of which is whether the producer or the utility company builds and maintains the delivery system (grid). Also there is no factoring for governmental price supports which influence some of these sources very favorably. One study suggested that gas for your car is government subsidize by as much as $1.80 a gallon, another pointed out that if the U.S. government put as much money behind wind and solar as it does for petroleum based energy sources, the relative cost of wind and solar would be immediately cut by more than 50%.

Clearly a question worth asking is: Who is paying for the study? Remembering, of course, that the Department of Energy is part of the same government that gives massive tax breaks to Big Oil. But that same U.S. government also has an Environmental Protection Agency and a National Science Foundation. Let's leave it at this, for each U.S. government agency that had relevant data available, there was conflicting data from another agency.

The best manipulation came from the natural gas industry. They have this very interesting formula for calculating the Btu output of natural gas that quite amazingly lowers the costs of natural gas against all other energy sources. I found three studies that used this formula to put out comparisons that have natural gas costing less than gasoline and one had the cost as low as hydropower.     

*[It has been pointed out to me that natural gas prices have fallen dramatically, which is good for the consumer and would change the '07 comparison above. Natural gas would now be less than $2 in that first ranking. However, when you use the formula mentioned above it appears that natural gas may actually be free . . . Be careful with your math, it endures.]  

Speaking of the seemingly inexpensive hydropower option (less than a dollar in our original study), why not use more hydro? Well, first you need water. Lots and lots of water. Then you need to control the water (dams). Then you need or you should deal with the reduced flow of water to those downstream. Hydroelectric plants tend to enrich the area around the dam and diminish the areas downstream. Perhaps the prime U.S. example is the Colorado River, which begins in the Rockies in Colorado. Well actually it begins even further north and at that it really begins with snow fall. The moisture in the snow comes mostly from the Pacific Ocean, well you get the whole Gaia interconnectedness thing.  

The Colorado River flows from the upper reaches of Colorado thru Utah, Arizona, very southern Nevada, back into Arizona and California. The Colorado is basically the boundary line between Arizona, Nevada and California. Eventually, the river flows into northwest Mexico and out into the Gulf of California between the Mexican mainland and Baja. Except that the river is dry now in most of Mexico and reaches the Pacific only in very wet years.

The problem? Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and all of the agriculture along the way. Oh, right and the dams that make hydroelectric power and in the process public policy on who gets the water and the power and for how much.

Hmm, I seem to have gotten a long way from the original study comparing the cost of energy. But, of course, my real point is: Be careful what you read, be careful what you quote as evidence and don't forget to turn out the lights when you leave. Don't worry about the faucet, the well is already dry.
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