The Therapy Sessions
Sunday, June 06, 2004
The energy crisis
Recently, posts by Myria and Steven Den Beste have reminded me about one of the key delusions of our times: the idea that we are an investment away from great new energy sources that will satisfy our energy needs without petroleum, coal or nuclear power.
You know, the "Hydrogen Economy," or how fuel cells are going to save the world.
This misperception is fueled by the press, which is highly knowledgeable about problems of engineering and scale and very skilled in its ability to predict the future.
How many news stories have you read used corn cobs being used to make "our next new source of cheap, renewable fuel?"
Den Beste sums up nicely the problems of scale. Just because something generates electricity on a benchtop, doesn't mean it can be used to power a nation:
In the mean time, we're not going to substantially decrease our consumption of petroleum by converting waste animal fat into diesel fuel, or putting a million gerbils on treadmills, or by capturing the air turbulence caused by migrating birds, or using the light from fireflies, or anything like that. Irrespective of whether they can be made to work, they just won't generate enough energy to make any difference in terms of actually significantly reducing the amount of petroleum we consume, which is where this entire discussion started. Remember, the original question was whether we could send a message to our Arab friends by reducing the amount of their oil we buy. We would not only need truly substantial amounts of alternate energy, we also would need it soon and cheap.
If nifty obscure new energy source du jour can't reasonably produce at least twice as much power as Grand Coulee Dam, it isn't going to make any difference.
I'm as intrigued by the potential of fusion power, core tapping and energy-mass conversion as anyone else. But a "Manhattan Project" type investment isn't what's needed to bring them online: whole new technologies need to be developed, and these things might turn out to simply be impossible.
Den Beste feels core-tapping seems to have the most potential, but it will require (most likely) powerful lasers that we can't build yet. I'd love to see more research into building more powerful lasers, but the Left has consistently opposed this, fearing that they could be used to build space lasers that could destroy incoming nuclear missiles (In their logic, this would be a bad thing. Huh? It's the Left. Go figure.).
But even that research is still diffuse and small scale at this point, and it's not even clear if it could be used to drill 30 km into the Earth's mantle.
For the foreseeable future, we still have a "Coke or Pepsi" world. Except the question is : nuclear or fossil?
I think the politics of nuclear power are going to change dramatically in the next few decades.