Often partial solutions to our problems are presented on the Internet but nobody puts the pieces together. Recently, I have focused quite a bit on the energy issue, and I have found that solutions abound, but the political will to implement them is lacking, or they appear uneconomical because they are, by themselves in fact uneconomical.

A good example of this is wind power penetrating the grid at more than about 20%. By itself taken in isolation, with all other variables ignored; more than about 20% seems impractical because of the variability of wind. But taken with other solutions the picture is quite different.

Our existing electrical grid is mostly an AC grid, the east and the western grids aren’t substantially connected, and overall it’s inefficient, unreliable, and at capacity straining to meet ever growing demands.

If this weren’t the case; if we modernized our electrical grid adding east-west ties and converting all spans longer than 300km to DC transmission, first, doing this alone would be like adding 15% additional generating capacity to the grid without any additional pollution because we could cut the losses from around 17% to around 2%. Moreover, efficient east-west transmission would allow us to distribute the peak load across the time zones requiring less peak capacity and making more efficient use of the capacity we already have, above and beyond grid losses.

If we can utilize geographical diversity with wind generation, something only possible with the modernization of our power grid; then the total capacity available from wind power never falls below about 1/3rd of peak capacity, and then we could, if we choose, simply overbuild capacity and supply our entire electrical needs from wind alone. I’m not advocating wind alone, ideally we’d use a mixture of renewable sources, solar, geo-thermal, ocean-current, ocean-wave, tidal, ocean-thermal, various forms of hydro (there are forms that can capture energy from the movement of river water without dams), etc.

We could generate all of our electricity by wind if we so choose simply by building 3x as much capacity as we need and modernizing the electrical grid. But there is a snag, wind, presently the least expensive method of generating electricity, less so even than coal now, would lose it’s attractive economics if we had to overbuild by 3x AND if there were no market for that peak power.

Add in some other technologies, for example, we can take electricity, carbon dioxide, and water, and using one of three processes, we can make an alcohol called butynol which can directly be used as a replacement for gasoline in ordinary gasoline cars. Butynol actually has tremendous advantages over gasoline. Butynol produces only 3% of the hydrocarbon emissions, almost unmeasurable carbon monoxide emissions, and greatly reduced nitrous oxides relative to gasoline. It also produces slightly better fuel mileage and power, greatly reduced acidic blow-by products (thereby enhancing engine life) and less waste heat (also enhancing engine life).

We can make butynol from electricity, carbon dioxide, and water by one of three methods. There exists a kind of reverse fuel cell that was recently invented that uses a catalyst in the presence of electricity to convert carbon dioxide and water to butynol. That is one method; it’s a method that from what I’ve read Richard Branson paid to have developed to produce butynol as a renewable jet fuel. However, there are two other methods also that can be used, carbon dioxide can be electrolyzed into oxygen and carbon monoxide, the carbon monoxide can be mixed with steam to form “process gas”, and then in the presence of catalysts, this can be used to create a variety of useful hydrocarbons including butynol. Lastly, electricity can be used to create sufficient heat to disassociate carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen and then the same process that follows electrolysis can be used. The last process has been demonstrated on an industrial scale, I’m not sure if the first processes have made it out of the lab, but they have at least been demonstrated in the lab. Using the latter two processes it is also possible to make synthetic diesel.

If use the electricity generated during times when there is excess capacity to create butynol, we can replace imported oil used for gasoline and diesel, while at the same time providing a market for the peak electrical production, thereby allowing wind power to be economical even when capacity is overbuilt, and we create a market for the carbon dioxide generated by existing coal and gas fired plants instead of just releasing the carbon dioxide into the air. When the butynol is burned it will release carbon dioxide, but this is displacing oil that would have been burnt, so the net result will be a reduction in carbon dioxide and if we can bring enough renewable electricity capacity online to eliminate the need for fossil fueled power generation, then we can continue to make butynol by sequestering carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere, thus making the process a closed loop resulting in no net carbon dioxide increase.

Any one of these elements by themselves may not be economic; but they are all mutually synergistic and implemented together they could eliminate our dependency upon foreign oil first, and later eliminate our dependency upon fossil fuels (or for that matter abiotic oil) entirely.

We should be doing this, and we should not be doing it ten or fifty years from now, we should be doing it now.