Tag Archives: energy

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY – THE HOPE AND THE HYPE

Well, I guess it had to happen. The gulf blowout has brought oil issues to the public attention in a way normally reserved for $4.00 a gallon gasoline. So now we all wring our hands and wonder what’s going on. How come, after 100 years of happy motoring, we’re having all these oil issues? And most importantly, whose fault is it? I don’t know the answer. All I know is that all of a sudden we seem to be having a lot of trouble producing enough oil at a price I want to pay. So what I want now is a solution, and one that isn’t going to inconvenience me. Something like – well – “Drill Baby Drill.” What ever happened to that one?

Someone better think of something fast because all this oil business is really messing up my long term plans. I mean, I know oil is a finite commodity and that we are bound to start running short of it someday. Everyone gets that. So you doomer environmentalists can spare me the lecture. It’s just that I always figured I could keep on with the happy motoring lifestyle at least for another 20 or 30 years then just fob the problem off on my kids. They’ll be bummed. But I won’t care. I’ll be dead. It’s their problem. But now they’re telling me that the stuff we need to keep happy motoring going is going to start running out sooner rather than later. So I need a plan B.

Luckily, as it turns out, the Greens and Al Gore have already worked that out for us. Just build wind mills and solar panels, link them together with a trillion dollars worth of smart grid, wave a magic wand to replace our 300 million gasoline cars with electric, and the problem is solved. Sounds good, but just to be sure, I did the math. And here it is. A barrel of oil can produce about 1.5 megawatt hours of energy. The average wind turbine can generate a maximum of 3 megawatts. However, because of the vagaries of wind, a 3 megawatt turbine will generate 1 megawatt on average. So, each hour, the average wind turbine generates about 1 megawatt hour of energy. Over a twenty four hour period our wind turbine can generate 24 megawatt hours of energy. That’s about 16 barrels of oil. We burn about 20 million barrels of oil in this country each day. So, if each wind turbine can replace 16 barrels of oil, that means we only need 1,250,000 wind turbines to replace our oil. We already have 35,000 megawatts installed right now. So, that’s about 12,000 turbines. Only 1,238,000 to go. I’m thinking if we really kick it, we can put up 50 a day. That’s 18,250 per year. At that rate, we’ll have them all up by the year….. 2078.  So now I’m starting to think alternative energy is not going to be the ticket to keep me mindlessly motoring either. At least not in the time frame I need. I guess that makes sense if you think about it. After all, if windmills were so great, why didn’t the Dutch stick with them?

But, if the oil’s running out, and the windmills aren’t going to keep me on the road, my future is not looking too good. You’re probably thinking the same thing. But stay calm. The problem will ultimately solve itself one way or the other. People have lived for hundreds of thousands of years without gasoline and cars an air conditioning and refrigeration and all that other stuff and they did just fine, didn’t they? Well, I guess it depends on whether you think chasing a Wooley Mammoth with a sharpened stick is a better deal than dinner at the pizza shack. Me, I’m not so sure.

So now I’m thinking that maybe I’ve just been framing the problem wrong. Until now, my attitude has always been, if you can’t come up with something at least as good as oil, then don’t bother me with it. You’re probably like me. And you’ve been thinking, if they can put a man on the moon why can’t they come up with an energy source that doesn’t inconvenience me or require any sacrifice on my part, right? But if that’s not going to happen, maybe what we really need to do is get some perspective on the issue. Let me tell you what I mean. Imagine you’re zipping along in your car when you suddenly run out of gas. Bummer right? One minute you’re cruising down the road like a god from Mount Olympus, and the next, you’re on foot like primitive man. Now, imagine that this takes place in the long, long ago, before cell phones, so you can’t phone for help. What do you do? You do what we did back then. You start walking. At that point, a horse or a bicycle starts to look pretty good.

And that’s what I mean about perspective. Compared to what we have today, a world run on renewables maybe doesn’t look so good. However, compare it to a world where everyone’s on foot and living in mud huts or whatever and it starts to look a lot better. Not that there’s anything wrong with walking. But when you’ve been on foot for a while, a horse or a bicycle starts to look pretty good. And a train looks like a veritable magic carpet. And, if we act while we still have the chance, alternative energy might be able to deliver something along those lines.

But, here’s the thing about alternative energy. Just like you’ve got to dig a well before you need the water, you’ve got to build your alternative energy system while you’ve still got the oil to help you build it. Sitting around yelling “Drill Baby Drill” while the oil to runs out will guarantee that your kids will be on foot. They’ll be out there trying to build a wind and solar powered system with hammer and tongs. And that’s going to be a real bummer. So, I guess my thinking is, when it comes to alternative energy and alternative transportation systems, I’m not going to hold out for something as good as what we have. My attitude is – does it beat walking? If it does, I’m all for it. And I’m all for it right now.

Don’t agree with me? That’s fine. I don’t have crystal ball. But have fun walking.

Advertisements

BLOWOUT IN THE GULF

Boy was I ever wrong! Just when I had concluded that offshore drilling in the modern era was as safe as a walk in the park, we get the biggest blowout since Spindletop. (Bigger actually, since I’m told they capped Spindletop in ten days or so.) You probably thought the same thing. In our defense, though, we can say that we were only taking the word of people in the know. You know, the experts. The people whose opinions matter. The people who told us that we hadn’t had a blowout of any real consequence since Santa Barbara in 1969. And that includes the president, who is way smarter than me, or probably you as well. At least, that’s what they tell me. And besides, you and I both know our opinions don’t matter anyway. So who can blame us for being wrong?

Well, I hate to say it but, people with a lick of sense, for one. In fact, they are probably all saying “I told you so,” right now. And that probably includes the guy who discovered the fourth law of thermodynamics. You know, the one that goes: “if something can go wrong it will.” That law of nature that not only explains but predicts that supposedly unsinkable ships sometimes sink, failsafe nuclear reactors sometimes blow up (or at least leak), and blowout proof oil wells still blow out, especially when they’re under a mile of ocean where you can’t fix them. At least it’s good to know that God is still in the heavens. But anyway, I’ll be ready next time. No more “drill baby drill” for this guy.

But that still begs the question – what do we do now? Like you, all I know is what I read in the papers. So it’s hard for me to decide whether I need to be worrying about the gusher at the bottom of the sea, or Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt. So, just to be safe, I’m doing both. And, I have to tell you, the former’s got me a little more worried than the latter these days. At first, I wasn’t too concerned. You probably weren’t either. The experts, you know, the people who matter, were on top of it with a tool kit full of top hats, top kills and junk shots and miles of oil booms. Pretty much the same things they deploy every time there’s a spill. And, they’ve worked pretty much like they always have in the past, which is to say not at all. But there’s always a first time I suppose, and so I figured it was worth a shot. Plus, the president sent down a whole slew of top government scientists to help brainstorm the problem. Apparently, even the Nobel prize winning secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is taking time off from inventing our next energy source to help out. I’m sure a guy who has a PhD in whatever he has a PhD in can master oil field technology in a weekend or so and get a handle on this thing. So, they’ll think of something, I’m sure of that.

I don’t know about you, but of all the things they have tried so far, my personal favorite was the junk shot. The notion of clogging the well with golf balls and shredded tires is certainly intriguing. I guess that’s the word for it. I don’t remember Red Adair ever doing that, but then, I don’t think he had a PhD. Actually, I do think I recall seeing something like that on the Red Green show. I don’t know what Red Green was actually doing with it, but it makes you wonder if some of their writers have PhD’s.

But, I’m digressing. To get back to the big question – what do we do now- at least now that we’re two months into it we have a clear answer to that one – no one has any idea. I’m no expert, but as I understand it, an oil well is a lot like a bottle of soda. It’s a combination of a liquid with dissolved gas inside. Shake the soda bottle with your thumb over the top and soda and gas comes gushing out like, well, like a gusher. The same principal drives oil out of wells. And, apparently, the deeper one drills into the earth’s crust, the higher the gas pressure in the well tends to be and hence, the harder it is to plug it. Plus, along with the gas and the oil, a lot of sand and other grit comes up the well bore. So, as long as the blowout keeps going, the well casing, the blowout preventer and any other pipes and cement down there are all gradually being eroded away – like they’re being sand blasted – which they are. So, the exit holes that the oil is coming through are tending to get bigger and are allowing more oil to come through. By the time the relief wells get drilled, there might be nothing left down there but a hole in the ground. And of course, by now you’re probably wondering whether the relief wells can work if they’re pumping mud into a hole in the ground rather than an intact well casing. Don’t ask me. The experts seem to think so, so that’s what I think too. They’re the experts, they should know right?

The whole situation puts me in mind of that old theological question, i.e “can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it ?” It looks like we are now examining the secular equivalent, which is, can technology create a problem so big that technology can’t solve it? This seems to be the central question at the heart of the environmental debate. The environmental movement posits that infinite growth of anything on a finite planet is impossible. As Eric Sevareid was fond of saying, the chief source of problems is solutions to other problems. Thus, each advance in technology is designed, in part, as a solution to an existing problem. This solution, then creates a larger problem which we again must try to solve through technology. According to the environmentalist paradigm, technological innovations responsible for growth will eventually be unable to solve the problems the growth causes and the whole system will come crashing down. Modern industrial civilization, on the other hand, is based on the opposite assumption. That is, there is no limit to the ability of human ingenuity to fashion technological solutions for any problems that are caused by human technology. Running out of oil? Invent a substitute for oil. Running out of fish? Invent a substitute for fish. Running out of air? Invent of substitute for . . . well you get the picture. In fact, this notion of technotriumphalism is so woven into the fabric of modern civilization that it might well be considered one of the world’s great religions. And, the track record of the past 300 years is pretty compelling evidence of the validity of this particular creed.

However, unlike the other religions of the world, technotriumphalism suffers from the flaw of being ultimately empirically based. Thus, it is subject to being empirically tested. In fact, the whole process of industrial civilization is conducting that experiment right now. And, although 300 years of success in engineering new solutions to existing problems is consistent with the technotriumphalist’s credo and pretty compelling evidence of its validity, it is not conclusive. This is because, in the empirical world of science, one thousand experiments that are consistent with a hypothesis do not prove it is true. However, one experiment can prove it is false. Thus, 300 years of consistent technological advance cannot prove that human ingenuity can conquer all. It can only provide evidence to the faithful that their faith is not misplaced. However, one failure to solve a critical problem via technology can prove the belief system unequivocally false, and catastrophically so.

Which brings me back to the blowout in the gulf. It may not prove the fallacy of technotriumphalism. However, 100,000 barrels a day with no end in sight certainly gives one pause. My old biology professor once told us that roughly half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean. At least if I heard him right. Now we have massive quantities of hydrocarbons spilling into the ocean where they are being eaten, hopefully, by bacteria that metabolize them by combining the carbon and the hydrogen with oxygen – oxygen they get from the ocean – leaving behind huge swaths of oxygen depleted ocean. What does this do to our oxygen supply. I don’t know. Something to think about anyway.

Of course, we could always apply some common sense and conclude that conducting an uncontrolled experiment that has a pretty good chance of a very bad outcome is not a good idea. After all if you were climbing a ladder you knew you were going to fall off of at some point, you would probably stop climbing, right? But what do I know? I thought drilling in the gulf was a good idea . I once had a professor who said, “you can be as clever as you want, but there’s really no substitute for having some sense.” Maybe the gulf disaster will do that for us – give us some sense. In the meantime, I think the Red Green show is on. Maybe he has a solution.