Why electricity isn't a palliative

I plan to build a new house in a wooded area in Vermont and heat it with electricity. The shortage of fuel oil and gasoline could probably by alleviated if more research were done to use electricity for heating houses and operating cars. Why not use natural gas and oil for generating electricity only? Why not bring down the cost of electricity? Also, I recall seeing the tall thin stacks at oil refineries in the Southwest with a flame shooting out the top. Why? Ruth W. Biggs Vergennes, Vt.

As the price of gas has risen, less and less gas is flared at refinery sites. Some gas will likely continue to be flared, because, says Heinz Jaster, manager of the thermal systems unit at the General Electric Research and Development Center in Schenectady, N.Y., in many cases the quality of the gas is too low for economical use via pipeline transport.

In other words, it costs too much to ship the gas by pipeline in relation to the price the end user pays for the gas.

Typical natural gas has an energy content of 1,000 Btu per cubic foot. Off-gases at refineries may have contents as low as 100 Btu per cubic foot.

"At this energy density, the cost of transporting the gas is much greater than current prices permit," Mr. Jaster reports. But as gas becomes more expensive, lower-quality gas will certainly be used.

As to your point concerning the use of oil and natural gas for the generation of electricity, about one-third of all electrical energy now generated in the United States starts with oil and gas.

"Large energy-conversion facilities, such as electric utility power plants, have the option of using uranium and coal for fuel, whereas automobiles do not," the GE researcher adds. Thus, since coal is truly plentiful and gas and oil are not, it makes sense to reserve the scarce oil for transportation and turn to coal and uranium for electrical generation.

Nuclear generating plants, of course, have come under severe and vocal attack all over the world, and there is no reason to believe the criticism will soon, if ever, relax.

A fully competitive electric car is still a long way down the pike. And even when electrical vehicles are practical, oil and gas will very likely be more valuable for other modes of transportation as well as for chemical conversion applications.

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