Friday, April 12, 2013

Addicted to Electricity

Today is Thursday, April 11, 2013.  (This entry is once again being published late.)

In the past 24 hours we have had just over six inches of snow, on top of a thick layer of ice.  Last night I heard that my niece and family were without power, and it appears that their side of town went without electricity for at least 12 hours.  My own building also experienced a power outage, which was thankfully limited to one hour.  With freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing temps at night, a loss of electricity is a dangerous business. 

Naturally, I couldn't access my computer during this time.  Nor could I shower (unless I wanted to do that in the dark), make coffee, or cook a meal.  Fortunately, I do not have a TV or land line phone.  Neither do I have any electronic gaming devices.  What I did have was daylight through the window and some good books to read. Two people were stuck in the elevator in my building, and fortunately I wasn't one of those!  Normally, during a power outage, I can just hop in the car and ride around a bit to get warm, but nature had dumped half a foot of snow on us, and much of my car was still coated with a thick sheet of ice.  I had put my ice pick in the trunk a couple of weeks earlier, thinking that I wouldn't need it again until next winter.  Wrong.  Fortunately, I was at least able to move my car from one side of the parking lot to the other, so I wouldn't be boxed in as the parking lot was plowed out.  Later, another resident helped me get the worst of the ice off my windshield, rear window, and trunk. 

Thank God for cell phone service, and that I had recently charged up my phone!  I could have charged it up in the car, if necessary, but until the car was dug out, I was a little concerned about possible carbon monoxide poisoning, since there was enough snow shoved up against the back of the car to block the exhaust pipe.

I got to thinking about how dependent we are on electricity, and did some research on the topic of various forms of energy. Our dependence on energy in the modern world has been described as a "toxic love affair."  In my mind, it is very much like an addiction, since we can't live the way we want to without it, our use of it alters our behavior, and we will do anything to get more of it.  It's also been said that without electricity to light our homes, and run our appliances and electronic devices, life would be much as it was in the 1800s and before.  Even those of us who are seriously seeking ways to implement a simpler lifestyle don't necessarily want to go backwards.  

Even when I was in elementary school – and I started first grade in 1959 – I learned that fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas were non-renewable forms of energy, and that at some point in time, humanity would have to seek out forms of energy that were renewable and less toxic to the environment.  I remember newspaper, magazine and TV ads that touted electricity as "clean" energy for heating and cooling our homes, and sure enough, most people seem to have switched over to electric powered heat. Now we complain when our infrastructure is damaged by ice storms, lightning strikes, and solar storms, or when it is overburdened by the need for air conditioning when the temperature soars.

But is electricity really "clean" energy?  To the extent that it is produced by fossil fuels, the answer is no.  In 2011, the amount of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants fell to its lowest level since 1978.  Coal now produces approximately 42% of the electric power in the United States.  Over the years, it has had an enormous negative impact on public health.  Fortunately, lots of coal plants are going offline, thanks to the efforts local people, as well as organizations such as the Sierra Club.  

Many coal plants are being replaced by those that are run by natural gas, since the price of natural gas is going down, and natural gas produces "greener" emissions when it is burned.  However, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and non-renewable.  Right now, natural gas is responsible for about 25% of the electricity generated in this country.  Nuclear power plants are responsible for about 19% of our electric power, and hydroelectric power is responsible for only 8% . Other renewable sources are responsible for the other 6%. 

At some point, we are going to have to increase our production of electricity generated by renewable energy sources.  What are these sources, and what are the pros and cons of each one? 

We already know how to use hydroelectric power, which is generated by the movement of large amounts of water that turn a propeller in a turbine.  In order for this to work, a dam has to be built on a river that has a large drop in elevation. In places where the land is flat, such as Kansas or Florida, that is not going to work, so hydroelectric power is not feasible for every area.

Demand for electricity is not constant.  It goes up during the day, especially when the weather is hot, and way down at night.  Hydroelectric plants are especially good at providing for peak power demands for short periods, and they do this more efficiently than fossil-fuel plants and nuclear plants. One way they do this is by using "pumped storage," where they can re-use the same water more than once.  Once the water has been run through the generators, it is stored in a pool above the power plant during times when the demand for power is low.  Then when the demand goes back up, the used water is run through the generators again.

Besides the fact that hydroelectric power plants have to be built in certain locations, there are other problems. In the construction of any type of man-made structure, including the roads and power lines necessary to bring electric power to where it is needed, there is always the issue of environmental damage.  With hydroelectric plants, the use of dams and the resulting changed water flow has an impact on natural habitats of the local wildlife, especially the fish that live in the river.   Hydroelectric plants are expensive to build, and natural events such as a drought can affect the amount of power a plant can generate.  Additionally, the number of places that are suitable for hydroelectric plants is limited, and at some point all of them will be in use. 

Solar power is the conversion of sunlight directly into electricity. Some people might want to claim that it is not truly renewable, as the sun is expected to burn itself out at some point, but I would submit that this is a moot point, because when the sun does burn out, all physical life will cease, anyway, regardless of whether we are using solar energy or not.  Since the death of the sun is in the distant future, it would seem a good way to get electric power.  It wasn't until the 1980s that solar power plants were built.  The largest solar power plant in the world is located in the Mojave Desert, where there is up to twice as much sunlight as other places in the country.  In fact, there are a number of solar power plants there.  Solar power plants are relatively easy and inexpensive to build, because they can be built with modular materials that are readily available. They are nearly maintenance-free and cause no pollution.  They don't have any moving parts to cause noise pollution, either.

Like hydroelectric plants, though, solar power plants need to be built in an area that receives quite a bit of sunlight.   Obviously, in areas where sunlight is variable, the average amount of days of sunshine per year determines how many solar panels are needed.  For private and/or local use, the cost of installing solar panels can be prohibitive, and the panels take up quite a bit of space.  Solar panels work only when the sun is shining, so unless there is a way to store the energy, an alternate power system is required. 

What about using geothermal power?  This is the use of steam produced by naturally hot water from beneath the surface of the earth.  Unlike solar power, it can be used round the clock, because earth's heat is always on.  It is estimated that if all the potential geothermal energy were harnessed, it could power the whole country three times over. However, in order to produce enough energy to make the cost of energy production feasible, systems known as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) must be built.  These systems work in areas where the water beneath the earth exists at lower temperatures.  Basically, they fracture the rock underground with high-pressure water.  Unlike fracking for natural gas, geothermal energy produces no toxic chemical byproducts.  So what's stopping us from using geothermal power?  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that EGS plants are responsible for earthquakes of magnitudes of 3.5 or 4.0.  In order to reduce this danger, EGS plants need to be built in uninhabited areas far from existing fault lines.  A system of regulating these plants would need to be put into place at the federal level.

The use of wind power is increasing in the United States.  A lot of big money is being pulled out of fossil fuels and redirected to the wind industry.  Wind power is clean energy, with no fuel to drill, frack, mine, transport or burn.  The cost of producing electric power with wind turbines is low, and the power is basically free, once the infrastructure is paid for, and it can be used almost anywhere. 

What's stopping us from using more wind power?  The wind in most places is inconsistent and unpredictable. Right now, wind power is not cheap, because we are still in the stage of building the infrastructure.  People near wind turbines complain about the noise they generate and some see the turbines as an eyesore.  There has been documented loss of life to birds and bats.  The turbines can even have a localized impact on nighttime temperatures and weather.  At present, one other issue is that the industry is still in its infancy, and there is a lack of places where turbine operators can be trained.  Also at present, turbine operators lead a rather nomadic life, traveling from wind-farm to wind-farm on temporary assignments. 

What about using the power of ocean waves to generate electricity?  Wave power is consistent and pollution-free.  It is relatively inexpensive to produce electricity from ocean waves.  Wave power devices run efficiently, no matter which direction the waves are coming from.  There is minimal visual impact, and no noise.   By capturing the kinetic energy of the waves at the shoreline, there is potentially less risk of damage from tsunami waves created by storms.  

The downside is that strong ocean storms and the corrosive nature of salt water can damage wave power devices.  We still don't know what the cost might be in terms of harm to marine life.  As with wind turbines, there are high start-up costs to install wave power devices.  Large-scale use of wave power devices could limit areas used for shipping channels, fishing, and recreation.  There is also quite a bit of noise produced by the devices, although it is probably not much more than the noise naturally produced by the waves.  At present, there are few installations that are equipped to handle ocean-generated energy. 

Finally, nanotechnology batteries are expected to be more and more widely used to power electric car engines. Batteries are lighter, and therefore larger ones can be used in cars, which means there will be less recharging time and and the cars will go farther between charges. The manufacturing sector will be affected, because factories will be needed to produce materials like nanotubes, aerogels, and nano particles.  

There are several potential issues with nanotechnology.  Problems could arise from the inhalation of these particles.  Anything made with nanotechnology is going to be small and easily portable, meaning that devices will be more accessible to a larger number of people.  Atomic weapons, in particular, could be made more powerful and therefore more destructive, and that power in the "wrong" hands could spell disaster.  Also, nanotechnology gives people the ability to develop products at the molecular level, so diamonds, for example, might also lose their value because they could be mass produced.  Widespread use of nanotechnology (or any other form of energy production) would result at some point in the crash of the oil industry.  Some might welcome this, but nobody knows how this would affect the world economy. 

At present, it looks to me like there is no one "silver bullet" source of clean, sustainable energy.  It appears that in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and keep our environment clean, we will have to consider using a number of different sources of energy in a responsible manner.   :-)

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