Monday, May 12, 2008

The day of the first mandated rolling blackout

Fossil fuels are important to programmers. We use computers which rely on electricity which rely on power plants which rely on transportation which rely on fossil fuels. When we run out of fossil fuels is the first day you won't be able to turn on your computer. Or much of anything else. I try to avoid doom-and-gloom in general but this is something that has been on my mind for a while. Basically, if we do nothing, all we will be able to say is, "Well, it was fun while it lasted." So, what should we do? Let's start with automobiles. The biggest consumer of fossil fuel/oil. I'm going to go for a myth vs fact approach here.

Myth: We have many, many years left before we run out of fossil fuels.
Fact: Nope. We've got maybe 30 years left. If even that. Some very conservative figures state 15 years before the first mandated rolling blackout. 30 years would be entertaining for sure - the magical year "2038" should ring some bells. You know - when all 32-bit clocks roll around to 0. Computers that work tend to not get replaced. Some line of code might be, "if (lasttime > time()) LaunchNuclearMissile();" thrown in perhaps as a dummy line that some engineer thought would be funny. Two disasters in one year would be...hilarious.

Myth: Oil is unlimited.
Fact: When I found out about this completely off the wall idea that oil is unlimited, I laughed. Apparently NASA sent out a space probe to Titan (Huygens) and one module, called GCMS, collected data that suggests the methane rich environment is not organic in nature (no Carbon-12). People then extrapolated upon NASA's scientific observations that oil is not necessarily based on fossils as previously assumed - only they convienently left out the word "necessarily". Then other people (not scientists) further extrapolated that oil is infinite. Then the conspiracy theorists decided to have their own take and declare a coverup that Big Oil knew about this all along and that there is actually an infinite supply of oil and that they are merely taking advantage to make a huge profit. All scientists know is that the methane on Titan comes from below the surface of that moon but they never made ANY claims that oil on earth is infinite. All they were doing was casting doubt on the possible likelihood that oil did not come from fossils. Sigh. Leave it to people's wild imaginations... Anyway, we probably won't step away from calling oil "fossil fuel" any time soon, since that phrase is so ingrained in us.

Myth: Biomass fuels (biofuels) based on corn are the answer.
Fact: Nope. Video 1. Video 2. Video 3. Video 2 - gotta love politicians in the hotseat. It takes as much energy as, if not more than, to produce a gallon of viable biofuel. It causes more pollution, not less due to less burning efficiency (a problem I see resolving itself more or less in time - being a relatively new thing). But the food issue is the main problem. We don't have enough food to begin with and farming is unfortunately viewed as a menial and dirty task by us city-slickers.

Myth: Hydrogen cars are the answer.
Fact: Nope. While this is currently hip and cool and trendy, there are so many obstacles to overcome. Pure hydrogen is hard to come by. We know that water contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. However, separating a water molecule into its component pieces takes a LOT of energy. The most common method for getting water to separate is to use electrolysis. And the most common method of electrolysis in hydrogen cars is to use a platinum-based alloy. Platinum is an expensive and rare metal. Storage of extracted hydrogen (to keep it from bonding to something else) is also an issue but someone seems to have come up with an interesting solution using titanium disilicide, sunlight, darkness, and heat. But anything viable there is a long way off from reality.

Myth: Electric cars are the answer.
Fact: Possibly. But the electric car unfortunately had an untimely demise. Stuff that has an untimely demise, typically caused by an idiot who claims they have the solution and can't reproduce it, usually takes decades before anyone seriously bothers again. The main problem with electric is distance and that they actually cause the same amount or more pollution than gas-powered vehicles (the pollution is more centralized at the power plant).

Myth: Wind power is the answer.
Fact: Er. Where are you sticking the windmill? On the roof of the vehicle? I don't know why I bother sometimes.


Politicians are great. They have a one-track mind that believes anything they are told to believe. The problem with energy is that you need a multi-prong approach to make it work efficiently and environmentally friendly. People love the idea of a "silver bullet" solution, but you would think that we would have already figured out that just isn't how the world works.

Let me now move on to alternate sources of electric power. Again, myth vs. fact seems appropriate.

Myth: Geothermal plants are permanent.
Fact: Geothermal is a good idea but hardly permanent. They are heavily dependent upon the stability of the crust. A single, small earthquake could easily and permanently shut down a geothermal vent. Additionally forcing the earth to provide geothermal power over the long-term has unknown effects. Geothermal plants are also required to stay up and running 24/7.

Myth: Hydro/Tidal/Wave power is a good idea.
Fact: Yes and no. The latter two typically sit in salt water, which is highly corrosive and will require significant maintenance. The former is typically a dam which can have undesired consequences both upstream and downstream in the long-term. But moving water does create significant amounts of energy.

Myth: Wind power is weak and towers are ugly.
Fact: Well, it depends on the area of the world and where the turbine gets placed. Most turbines are placed well away from residences and businesses, which makes getting power to the destination difficult. For the ugliness, I recommend the engineers at Apple, Inc. You know - the people who came up with the iPod, the iMac. So we need the iTurbine. Hardware engineers are generally not interested in aesthetics. They just want to get it working, whatever it is. While Apple is at it, they should make the iTower to get rid of unsightly cellular towers.

Myth: Off-grid solar is the answer.
Fact: A lot of people are making a big deal about going completely off-grid. Going off-grid supposedly means no more bills from your utility company. The downside is that, while it is being touted as being paid for itself in 20 years, what the proponents fail to mention is battery replacement. The energy during the day has to be stored somewhere to last the night.

Myth: On-grid solar power is cheaper.
Fact: Well, people still have to be paid. And setting up a solar operation is not cheap. And there is the issue of how to store the power, but the power company can store massive amounts of energy and shove it around the grid as needed. And the big ol' power lines still have to be maintained. It may not be cheaper, per se, but it is more eco-friendly. Usually. Some solar plants have emissions but are far lower than most power plants.

Myth: Nuclear plants blow up and irradiate stuff.
Fact: That hasn't happened for a while. It is true we haven't figured out what to do with all the waste material but that is the stuff of movies. Perhaps we shouldn't use nuclear fuel for power plants.


Okay, those are the basic myths I could think of off the top of my head. Wikipedia has a lot of information on all this stuff since it is a hot topic.

The world sees the problem either as one issue or two issues: Stationary and mobile energy. I see a third problem: Localized energy. A viable solution for clean, renewable energy is going to be able to combat all three problems.

Stationary energy is "solved" using power plants. Power plants have the ability to store and move massive amounts of energy across long distances. In terms of renewable energy, there are really only two options - wind and solar. Of those, solar is the most consistent. The amount of sun isn't predictable but day and night are quite consistent. Wikipedia has a visual map of how much centralized solar is needed to power the world's current needs.

Mobile energy is harder to "solve". The current hoopla is over E85 (Ethanol 85%, gas 15%). Ethanol in the U.S. is based on corn/maize, which is a primary food source for stock. Corn-based ethanol is less energy efficient, only fractionally cuts down on emissions, consumes much more farmland, and costs more to make. The problem is the basis of Ethanol being corn. Corn has to be converted to sugar before it can be processed. Brazil, on the other hand, also makes Ethanol but the basis of their Ethanol is sugar cane. The end result of Brazil's sugar cane Ethanol fuel is that it is significantly more cost-effective and efficient than corn. Why not import? Well, there is an import tax that currently makes it more expensive to import sugar cane than to grow corn. The difference is that sugar cane is not essential to life. We can do just fine without refined sugar in our diets. We can't grow sugar cane in the U.S. very well or at least not in sufficient quantity. We could annex Brazil but the world might not be too happy with us.

But there are still emissions. Electric cars would be better. But only if an emmisions-free source (i.e. power plant) was used and batteries were eco-friendly as well instead of leaking toxins all over the place.

And now I come to the fun part: Localized energy. All the current solutions (pun intended) try to integrate with existing systems. Remember how I said earlier that it takes decades to return to a "blunder" (untimely demise) and try again? The famous inventor Thomas Edison actually had his own blunder back in the day. When electricity was first being distributed, it came in D.C. form (Direct Current). The A.C. form (Alternating Current) that we use almost exclusively today had not been invented yet. D.C. was big, expensive, and only traveled short distances. A.C. was able to travel longer distances and therefore required fewer power plants and therefore electricity was cheaper. A.C. is great for high-power applications such as refridgerators, freezers, central air conditioning, furnaces, washers, dryers, etc. You get the idea. What A.C. is NOT great for is small-power applications such as computers, laptops, iPods, cell phones and pretty much anything else with near 100% electronic components inside. These items are usually combined with the infamous block...the power inverter. Power inverters convert between A.C. and D.C. even when there is nothing physically connected to the other side of the unit (I assume that is the case since I can touch the unit and it is warm/hot).

Now, why the history lesson? Well, solar power for the home brings in D.C. current. The panels that people advocate "require" an inverter to convert D.C. to A.C. A lot of energy is lost in that continual conversion process. If all you are going to do is convert that energy again from A.C. to D.C. with another inverter (along with more wasted energy) then why bother with that at all? I hereby propose the reinstantiation of the D.C. wall socket to connect to localized solar power to power your tiny devices. Then, combine that with centralized solar power plants for powering the big-ticket items. If we're going to stop wasting energy then we need to stop wasting it on silly things like power inverters.

Additionally, instead of wasting fuel to power things like the radio, clock, etc. in a vehicle, slap some decent solar cells on the roof and power them that way instead. Again, localized solar power for devices that make sense.

Just some stuff to think about as we code our way to 2038.
Launch that missile!

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