The Random Comic Strip

The Random Comic Strip

Words to live by...

"How beautiful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterward."

[Spanish Proverb]

Ius luxuriae publice datum est

(The right to looseness has been officially given)

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders," wrote Ludwig von Mises, "no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way for himself if society is sweeping towards destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interest, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle."

Apparently, the crossword puzzle that disappeared from the blog, came back.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Running on empty

Let me tell you why alternative energy sources are doomed to failure for the foreseeable future.

We need to first examine the history of energy. Once humans created communities, it became clear that energy consumption would be a problem. Humans needed heat; fire for cooking and for warmth in cold weather. As agriculture developed, water supplies and mills (for grinding grain) needed to be addressed. The flow of water provided the energy for the mills, saving on human labor and the use of animals. These were followed by windmills which used the power of air flow to power the mills. The water, of course, also was needed for the crops and for the animals. It makes sense, then, why the first communities were built along rivers. Communities were also built near the seas or other large bodies of water... not for energy needs but for food supply.

What humans learned early on was that nature wasn't reliable. Droughts were unpredictable as were their opposite (deluges and floods). The wind might blow... or not. Streams might dry up from excessive droughts, even rivers might be reduced to small streams.

Fire not only provided heat but also light. Not great light but adequate for the primitive needs of man at the time. But trees were the only source of wood and trees grow slowly and are subject to problems caused by disruptions caused by weather changes. And supplies can easily be depleted. Look at Haiti, consider the problems of deforestation.

I believe there was a constant search for reliable energy throughout human history. Oil from various sources was used for lamps and torches. Eventually, petroleum was discovered in abundance and it displaced the biological sources of oil: animal fats and plant oils.  It also gave birth to the production of electricity which led to the  incandescent bulb for light, the internal combustion engine to power machines (run those mills), and so on. It was the "Holy Grail" of power. The Industrial Revolution would not have continued just on coal alone. More than coal was needed, something that was relatively easier to get at and to convert to energy. Oil was that resource.

So now we have become heavily dependent on oil. And we also now blame climate change on the byproducts of its (and coal's) use. And so we want alternative fuels, alternative energy, "renewables", as they are called. We want "clean" energy, "green" energy.

Consider that these renewables and alternative energy sources are subject to the whims of nature. To the very things that prompted the search for a dependable source of energy in the first place.

What if the wind patterns change because of climate change? What happens to those wind farms? What if climate change produces droughts where we grow the soy, and the switchgrass, and the corn that we want to use for biofuels? What happens when rivers dry up?  What if we have to choose between food and energy?

Do we want to return to dependence on Mother Nature? Would we face energy rationing? Could we sustain a reasonable level of human comfort, provide for our energy needs in the face of the unreliability of nature? Or would it result in massive human suffering?

We do need to develop other ways to power our machines that make our lives pretty easy, there's no way around the fact that oil will eventually run out. But we'd best be careful and not assume that alternative fuels will replace oil and coal. The alternative energy sources will likely be, as they have always been, unreliable.

Don't get me wrong, hybrids and electric powered cars are going to be needed for the near future but generating electricity to charge the electric cars? That's going to be mostly fossil fuel at work. Until we find something better, something as efficient and reliable.


Torggil said...

The problem with fuel cells or hydrogen powered vehicles is that they need a ready source of hydrogen atoms to work.  I knew a guy in the oil business.  When I mentioned fuel cell vehicles and alternative energy sources, he said that it is not cost effective to get the hydrogen from water.  Therefore fossil fuels, coal, oil, shale oil, as high hydrogen component resources will remain the primary source of energy.  This was over ten years ago, but I can't see him being wrong.

Douglas4517 said...

 Not to mention, like all electric cars where there is no infrastructure in place for re-charging, there is no infrastructure for refueling the hydrogen fuel cells. None whatsoever. Major changes will have to be made to the system of gas stations we now have. And that will take decades, as it did to establish the gas stations.

Torggil said...

True, but there is a hydrogen road in Norway, complete with infrastructure, some 300 kms long.

Douglas4517 said...

 You got me to do a bit of research and I found that not only Norway has one but so does (or did) Canada and several others. The problem for me is that I am in the US where...

"There are plans and proposals for hydrogen highways in the United States.
In August 2008, fuelcelltoday reported that three new hydrogen fueling
stations were opening in the U.S., bringing the total to 70 in the
country.[11] In April 2009, however, BNET Auto reported that there are currently 65 hydrogen stations in the U.S.[12]" this is a start. And we do need to find a way to efficiently derive hydrogen from sea water. But let's think about this a bit. Global warming is causing sea levels to rise, many say that GW is being caused by an increase in CO2 in the atmosphere and that this CO2 is coming from the burning of fossil fuels. So we convert most of our CO2 producers to run on hydrogen, reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The seas stop rising and we now start depleting the oceans through hydrogen conversion. New problem? To be solved later?Everything we do has unforeseen side effects.

Torggil said...

True.  But its a zero sum game.  What is supposed to come out of the tailpipes is water.  It goes into the air and then rains down.  Flowing back into the sea.  Of course, in the short term, we could be increasing the percentage of salt in the ocean.  That might kill life in the sea or affect coral reefs.

Rising temperatures actually should make the atmosphere capable of holding more water thereby reducing the amount the sea actually rises.

One of the shows on the discovery channel talked about a fusion fuel requirement that saw a need to colonize the moon to meet growing energy demands.  If we had a reasonably clean and cheap source of efficient energy outside the nuclear, it would be used.  That would electric cars back on the gameboard.  Until then, as you say, here come the hybrids (shudder).

Douglas4517 said...

 What once came out of tailpipes in response to a method for reducing smog was a light sulfuric acid mist produced by the catalytic converters put on cars in the 70's to cut pollution. That mist created its own pollution problems, of course. Even damaged roadways as well as causing breathing problems for some. I only bring that up as a reminder that the consequences of any technological change may be adverse. I really doubt we could have much of an effect on sea levels by extracting hydrogen for transportation use (even adding in electricity generation). I think we are better off adapting to changes than attempting to reverse them, especially when it comes to global climate changes.

The hybrids, like the all electric cars, have a major pollution issue: the batteries. One needs to consider the cost of replacing and disposing of batteries that have outlived their usefulness. One wonders about the cost of making fuel cells in terms of energy consumption and whether they wear out and must be replaced (useful life-span) and how they might be disposed of.