Saturday, November 9, 2013

Guest Post: What color is the sky in that world?

What color is the sky in that world?

Today I was listening to NPR, as I often do, and it was a group discussion of "clean energy." Just about everybody in the group was an enthusiastic proponent of clean energy, and strongly opposed to fracking, drilling, and of course nuclear power. One of the contributors said that in the US we have a choice, we can have a clean glass of water or we can have inexpensive natural gas. Because the gas industry is ready to drill "hundreds of thousands of gas wells across the entire nation."

That statement I thought was pretty far out, but it was nothing compared to the next statement, which is that there is enough clean energy available in the USA, from solar, wind, and geothermal, for ALL our power needs for thousands of years.

There is that minor detail that you won't have airplanes fly with any energy source other than liquid hydrocarbons, and you won't be running the 18-wheelers with electric motors and batteries the size of a '34 Buick, but let's neglect all that.

Yes, if you calculate how much sunlight falls on the continental USA and assume you can tap a serious fraction of it, and also have at least tens of thousands of wind platforms all spinning nicely, it will add up to one hell of a total of terawatts of energy. However, the other detail of the thousands of square miles of solar panels you need and the cost of those wind farms (we'll skip the price of all the thousands of dead birds every day) is actually kind of important. You can't get there very easily, and that's if you neglect the detail of the environmental impacts.

But "here's the rub"... I know it's not widely known, but the sun does not shine every day. And the winds do not blow every day and night. So you MUST have alternate energy generation facilities for when you can't get it all from Mother Nature, fickle as she is. Which means burning coal, or oil or gas, or (omigod) nuclear power plants.

Tapping alternate energy wherever reasonably convenient and halfway efficient is a fine idea. It can never be anything but supplemental energy to the national grid. In some locations, near deserts with lots of sun or coastal areas with fairly constant winds, it may be really useful for that local grid. In the parts of the country that have a lot of cloud cover and not a lot of consistent wind, it won't be cost efficient at all.

The people on the program clearly have in their minds a great image of life in a wonderful world where the only stuff that gets burned is the logs in decorative fireplaces, and maybe a few incinerators for getting rid of nasty chemicals. Where all the cars are electric, and go 100+ miles per charge, and charging only takes 20 minutes. Maybe with trackless railroads, where the cars are supported on magnetic fields and do 150 mph between cities and across the country. It's a beautiful place.

However, it's not on this planet, not anytime soon, and I wonder what color the sky is there. Having lofty ideas and ideals is great, but then mere reality gets in the way of actual implementation. Truly the devil is in the details.

Meanwhile, the French are still rolling along getting 75% of their national power from an entire network of nuclear plants, with no disasters and recycling of the nuclear waste. When did they get to be so much smarter than we are? I bet the sky is just a nice blue over there.


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