Energy Sources

Dawn, Seoul, South Korea

Which is more important, where your energy comes from or the after-products from its generation and consumption?

Directly or indirectly, all our energy ultimately comes from the Sun. It shoots out the photons that energize the vast arrays of solar cells that will soon cover a large area in the desert southwest of Phoenix. And it reflects off the mirrors near Palmdale California where it is then concentrated and used to generate steam to spin a turbine that then generates electricity.

Wood, charcoal and coal are no more than three different points in time of the same process that starts with trees growing in the sunlight. What we later reap from them is the energy of the sun, stored in chemical form.

Wind mills, driven by the solar-heated atmosphere, are obvious sources of solar power. And so are ocean shore wave rockers because, without the heat of the sun, Earth’s oceans would be frozen solid.

So much for dams and hydroelectric which, in addition to the water, also need the sun to evaporate it, the winds to move it around, and the unequal heating of land and water, polar versus equatorial regions, to collect it, concentrate it and, when the load is too heavy, the rain falls to collect in lakes behind the dams.

It’s all solar.

Even the dangerous materials used in nuclear reactors are solar because their elements, Uranium, Plutonium and so forth, are brewed in the cores of stars, that ultimately explode and distribute those elements to interstellar spaces where, millions of years later, they collect in the planetary crust of a newly forming planet such as ours.

So, what then of the by-products?

Wood, charcoal and coal are arguably some of the worst offenders. I remember the yellow air of Wuhan China, tinted by the charcoal sold by street vendors to households to heat the evening meals each day. And I remember the grey ash that covered the few blades of grass that struggled up in the planted and groomed areas.

Coal-powered plants in the US, of course, must use scrubbers so they don’t pollute or, I guess I should add “as bad”.

Gas-fired generators burn gas, boil water, make steam, spin a turbine, and generate electricity. Gas is “cleaner” than coal and wood but the by-products still have to be managed.

Obviously, so do those from nuclear power reactors where the half-life of dangerous radiation may be measured in tens of thousands of years.

But what about direct solar power? Wind, photovoltaic, solar-heated steam?

Those methods of power conversion have by-products, let’s not forget.

First, the equipment has to be manufactured. These are all “high tech” systems and use sophisticated electronics to keep everything working so, in addition to the raw materials, think also of the computer chip manufacturing, of circuit board assembly, of the computerized test equipment and its original manufacturing and so on.

And once manufactured, the equipment has to be boxed (cardboard and foam), transported (rail and truck), site prepared (bulldozers, PVC plumbing, concrete block), and everything assembled (tools), tested (more electronics) and ultimately connected (wiring, insulators, steel towers).

Then, when those green power generation systems are hooked to “the grid,” their operation must be *very* carefully controlled to make sure they push power into the gigawatt grid that blankets North America instead of accidentally having power go the other way and turning the turbine into a fountain of molten metal. More electronics, more equipment, more transportation, etc..

During operation, each form of power generation has its own distinct effect on the Earth. I read an article this morning that says wind powered generators heat the ground beneath them because the blades “swirl” the air behind them, moving the air normally near the ground up higher, and the higher air down to the ground. That doesn’t sound like much of a “by product” but, well, it’s something I guess the worms may not like — or maybe they’ll go into a reproductive orgy and produce billions of wrigglers that break up the ground and cause the windmills to collapse?

Or maybe not.

But the wind mills do suck energy out of the wind that would’ve otherwise been expended somewhere else. What will be the effect of that lessening of wind energy elsewhere?

And what about the photons of energy that are absorbed by photocells that is pumped into the grid instead of into the ground? That energy would’ve been stored in the dirt and later pumped back into the evening cool. That’s the heating and cooling that drives ocean breezes in the mornings and evenings because the water heats and cools at a different rate from the land. And those breezes churn the atmosphere in ways that ultimately participate in the global dance called weather.

Let me say that, while I agree that burning wood is a rather poor way of generating heat energy, finding a way of making that energy available that doesn’t pollute simply isn’t gonna happen because no matter what manner of conversion is used, it’s all ultimately solar and, if you channel that energy into your purposes, that same energy is not going to do what it was doing before you diverted it.

That is, every manner of diverting energy to your purpose removes it from what it was doing. There are going to be by-products of your diversion and, because that’s always going to change the status quo, that’s always going to be seen by some as undesirable.

The real question to be answered is how can we generate power without destroying ourselves in the process.

Wood pollutes much too fast and makes us sick faster than we can make ourselves better. OK, so that’s out and, with it, charcoal used for home heating and cooking in third world countries also has to be stopped. (If you have a way of accomplishing that in the foreseeable future, drop me a note.)

Coal and gas, while problematic, do have a price-point where they make sense. When people are willing to pay a lot — such as for air conditioning in the month of August in Phoenix Arizona and Las Vegas Nevada — then the cost of those smokestack scrubbers isn’t so bad. Power generation with that equipment becomes economically feasible and the Arizona Public Service utility fires them up.

Solar and wind and, maybe someday, wave-power will all contribute but, at least so far, the percentage they contribute to worldwide demand is little more than a drop in the bucket.

In Phoenix, the Palo Verde reactor complex a few miles west of town is our “meat and potatoes” source. It generates, along with the hydroelectric sources along the Colorado and other rivers of the west, the lion’s share of what we use each day.

By products from the dams include the silting up of rivers and the consequent changing of ecology and fishes. And by products of the nuclear plant are the dangerous materials that have to be stored in deep mines dug into mountains in otherwise uninhabited areas. (Shooting them in a rocket into the Sun isn’t [yet] economically feasible. And no doubt there will be some undesirable byproducts of that, albeit pretty friggin’ small if you think about the scale of things.)

So, yes, I’ll take the clean energy when I can but I’ll tell you right out, my eye is gonna be on the electric bill each month and, ultimately, that’s where I’m gonna cast my vote.

What I’d like to see, in one place, is a list of what each type of energy source costs to develop, produce, and eventually shut down and reclaim the locations for other purposes. I want to see all the “costs”, not just dollars and cents but also in terms of lives, health, species and so forth.

Until then, we’re all just guessin’ and I’m gonna have to get my energy from the wall outlet in the meantime.

My priority is affordable clean energy with emphasis on the former because if I can’t afford it, it’s not energy I can use. It’s not energy at all.

Until such a survey is available, I will continue to guard my pennies and spend them wisely.

Aside: I read in a report (click here) that the “buy another one of these” rate for green cars is lower than for conventional. I wonder why that is?

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