Sunday, December 11, 2005

getting it together

David Eric Renner
English 151
Section 13
Alternative Fuels

The Industrial Revolution has created within our civilization an appetite, a momentum of consumption that not only encompasses the whole menu, but the staff, the restaurant and all of us, as well. The irony here is that the Industrial Revolution was meant to set us free by having machines do the work for us. Now, with the impersonalized and computerized climate we see today, it seems we are working for them, shoveling coal into a doomed locomotive that’s running full steam toward the edge of the world, devouring virgin fields and pristine lakes all along the way. It is here I imagine some waxed mustached figure robustly snapping his suspenders and touting “progress, progress, progress!” in a proud, nineteenth century fashion. As modern Westerners, we consume about three hundred and fifty times the energy, per person, as did he. Consider that our population is ten times the size it was two hundred years ago, we might as well run an extension chord to the sun to meet our energy needs. “To put it another way, in one year we now consume more than our society did in the whole period from the rise of ancient Greece to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.” (Russell) That’s a lot of Joules in demand, and currently the best source for that much power is fossil fuel, or is it? Oil has a tendency to be the source of great power struggles, with the additional costs of lives and pain not seen at the pumps, and coal is just plain dirty. Plenty of alternative options have been introduced, but many fail to meet the demand. There are, however, two alternatives, one for each side of the energy industry, that make the grade: bio-diesel for transportation (Segal) and nuclear power for electricity. These are current technologies that need minimal adjusting of infrastructure, pollute very little and are much more affordable than current standard practices. If we are to gain energy independence in our lifetimes, end energy related wars, and possibly save the world, bio-diesel and nuclear power are our best options. (Moore)
Fossil fuels are the most available source in quantities needed to meet actual demand, and are in no danger of running out at any time within the next few hundred years[S1] . If only it were that simple this would be an open and shut case. We could trust our fuel suppliers to bring us quality fuel from around the world at reasonable prices and improve everyone’s lives along the way. However, such is not the case. We are starting to see trends of a hydraulic empire forming out of supply and demand for our essential oil. A hydraulic empire is an empire that controls its subjects by controlling the water supply they need to grow crops, and thus, survive. We need energy to make our lives work, and the most popular form of that energy is derived by burning fossil fuels. Alternatives, like hydrogen drives, are rarely available to the main stream, and even less affordable. It seems as though all the Anti-Trust laws against monopolies have been ignored and gleefully sidestepped as the various oil companies all link elbows and skip down the coal-bricked road toward a huge smoking tower sporting a massive dollar sign painted in blood. Take Exxon, for example: These bloated, financial giants reported record profits of nine point nine billion dollars last quarter. When asked why they didn’t increase refining capacity, their spokesman Henry Hubble, gave this cryptic reply: "Frankly, if you're trying to encourage supply growth, it seems odd to put in place disincentives." (CNN News) Who’s supply are we talking about? If these guys are getting such ridiculous profits, and we are paying such high prices for oil due to “shortages” or whatever the current crisis is, effectively, big oil has tyrannical capabilities similar to the hydraulic emperors of the past. One can be sure that out of simple self-preservation for the status quo, a future with oil-based warfare is guaranteed.
To be thorough, I must describe what brought about this need for fuel: the automotive industry, particularly the civilian aspect. This industry has been around for a good hundred years, and in one form or another can be expected to be around indefinitely, as people will always need transportation. One thing I find interesting is that only in the nineties did the gasoline side of the civilian auto industry start making serious changes involving fuel efficiency and emissions control. These were entirely due to EPA standards, and even then it was to make autos run as clean and efficiently as their commercial diesel counterparts. (Dagel and Brady) This says two very important things; that commercial industrial profits depend on the efficiency and reliability of their machines, while the civilian automotive industrial profits depend on the durability and reliability of their customers. We can now witness a crack in the “bigger is better” plan with the rise of foreign vehicle dominance over the big Three. The auto industry helped cultivate the fuel demand, but now soaring prices of that same fuel have cultivated a demand for fuel efficiency, which has been largely neglected and grudgingly conformed to with CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) Standards[S2] . CAFE Standards basically state that the average fuel economy of a manufacturers vehicles have to meet certain standards. What happens is that a bunch of SUV’s come chugging out, and to offset fifteen and change miles-per-gallon, things like the Geo Metro are built to meet an average fuel economy. It is not as if the technology for higher fuel efficiency isn’t available or is costly to install, as demonstrated by the rising foreign car market, it’s that our American companies don’t care. “[T]hey’re concerned about their profits two days, two weeks, maybe even two months from now. They’re not investing in technologies, they’re not investing in these opportunities that are going to ensure they’re profitable ten years from now.” (Friedman) It is these very technologies that have characterized the commercial industry, long before they were used in the civilian side of the business. I would like to introduce the idea of bio-diesel here. There is over a hundred years of research and development for efficient diesel machinery, built in the interest of the consumer, not the manufacturer. It takes relatively little to convert to a bio-diesel infrastructure with some interesting perks: bio-diesel can be grown by American farmers, processed in American plants, and used at a fraction of the cost and pollution of standard diesel. This produces jobs and eliminates some dependency on foreign oil, not so much an altruistic idealism, but a necessary step in self-sufficiency away from crackpot oligarchies that guarantee strife-for-oil for years to come.
Oil isn’t our only problem, there’s coal, too. Coal itself is great stuff; it’s relatively cheap to refine and burn and is fairly abundant. However at our current rates of consumption, America will run out of coal in about two hundred years. Currently fifty eight percent of our power plants still use coal to operate boilers, yet they are almost wholly responsible for the combined pollution of the entire power industry. That adds up to roughly a third of America’s greenhouse gases, with the exception of sulfur dioxide, the coal plants pump out two thirds of that lovely substance. Over the last one hundred years, planet wide carbon dioxide levels have increased by one third. (Mendelson) This leaves us in the same position as oil again: import, import, import, and at our current rate of making diplomatic friends with the rest of the world, this could put us in a real nasty bind. Fortunately we’ll all be dead so it’s not our concern, right? Perhaps, but afterlife or not, to consciously leave the world in such a state for our descendants is just as much a crime against humanity as if we were to leave the dog in the car with the windows rolled up in summer. Sure we didn’t mean to, but neglect still has the same result, and we’d be just as guilty in retrospect.
Coal covers about fifty eight percent of the power industry and natural gas rounds that up to seventy percent, leaving thirty percent left for alternatives like wind, hydropower, solar and nuclear. Wind and solar are by far the cleanest alternatives, yet generate on a relatively small scale. Wind is pretty much everywhere, but collecting it and turning it into energy faces much the same problems of technical development as does solar. “Solar panels will not be cost effective for mass application until their cost is reduced by [five to ten] times.” (Moore) There’s geothermal, unfortunately it is limited to locations of volcanic activity. Hydroelectric has strong potential. It is clean and cheap, and used responsibly it won’t clog up waterways that are vital for much of the surrounding ecosystems. If its use were extended to current non-hydroelectric dams, another seventeen thousand megawatts of power would be available, effectively eliminating eighteen million tons of carbon wastes. Hydropower’s biggest obstacle currently is red tape. “A typical hydropower project takes 8 to 10 years to find its way through the licensing process. By comparison, a natural gas fired plant, which emits carbon dioxide (CO2) gases, can be sited and licensed in as little as 18 months.” (National Hydropower Association.)
Which leaves us with nuclear power, perhaps the best alternative for versatility and sheer power output, with some rather nice peripheral benefits. First I must dispel some common misconceptions about nuclear power. Terrorists will use the spent fuel rods to make nuclear bombs. Storage of these same rods is unsafe, causing three eyed fish and abominations such as Godzilla, and nobody wants a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island in their backyard. First, terrorists have been killing each other and everyone else quite effectively with machetes, rifles and car bombs, and no one is about to ban those things. Even so, there is some validity to that thought. I highly doubt any terrorist or mercenary has the constitution and knowledge to hijack a power plant and remove the core without killing themselves halfway through the process, it’s the governments you should to be worried about. Of the five hundred or so reactors in operation worldwide; current security measures must be doing the trick, being as we are still alive. Second, we have more than adequate technology to store the spent fuel indefinitely. If it really bothers you that much, give the rods the old Timothy Leary send off and launch them straight into the sun, it’s big and hot and can take anything. Finally, no one wants any power plant in their back yard, that much electricity is not good for people, regardless it’s source. Chernobyl was an example of how not to run a power plant, and is the only case of such extreme disaster. Three Mile Island stands as an ideal example of a worst-case scenario successfully mitigated by its own automated safety systems. On the plus side, nuclear power produces a negligible amount of waste. Even the spent fuel rods have about ninety five percent of their fuel left in them, and while we don’t have technology to use them now, there is always the future and the sun, if nothing pans out. If we are ever to get to a hydrogen-propelled economy, nuclear power would be the ideal source for the heat and electricity needed to produce hydrogen without the carbon dioxide byproduct of using coal. For ocean side plants, desalination of seawater is possible on a massive and cost effective scale, providing water for people and crops in areas that desperately need water. (Moore)
We are living in times when capitalism isn’t making long-term sense anymore. To turn a profit at the expense of the future isn’t just unintelligent, it is purely evil. Imagine a plague of locusts with sharp neckties, firm handshakes and confident smiles, selling wolf tickets and paper tigers. The end results are still the same; fat locusts and miles of stretching wasteland. As Tom Robbins so elegantly puts it “any Bozo on the riverbank could have told us that if you keep feeding and feeding and feeding a bonfire, sooner or later you burn up all the fuel and the fire goes cold; or else the fire gets too huge to manage and eventually engulfs the countryside and chars its inhabitants.” To continue to use fossil fuels with no alternative plan is to willingly render ourselves powerless against those who control the valve to our high octane lifestyles. We have at our fingertips the means to gain energy independence through bio-diesel and nuclear power. These same means could be spread around the world at a fraction of the costs we spend fighting and arming the world, actually doing something for world peace other than lip service. “This is why we continue to spend more than a trillion dollars a year on weapons of destruction; rather than ensuring our collective survival. Someone somewhere fears that change is not in his or her self interest.” (Russel) Of course these actions would greatly upset the balance of power, potentially sparking off yet more conflict and turmoil, the implications of which are well beyond the limited scope of this essay. Conflict, for whatever reason, is more or less inevitable, whether it be to ride out this smoking train to the edge or to try and catch a new ride, there will be strife. The time is now, and while it has always been now and will continue to be now every time you think of it, and any and all action taken should be done with careful deliberation with respect to the well being of everybody, not just a quick buck and a mess left for somebody else to clean up.




[S1]Find ref

[S2]find ref, check epa

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