We’re coming up on the 232nd anniversary of our nation’s independence from England. We now find ourselves owned, controlled, and at the mercy of other countries for our nations lifeblood, energy. King Abdullah tells us to get used to high oil prices.
It’s time folks to send a hardy FU to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and take our energy needs into our own hands, and it’s not for lack of resources that we haven’t done this already.
America has the means to be entirely self-reliant from an energy perspective, moreover, we have the means of being entirely self-reliant in a clean sustainable manner and becoming a significant world energy supplier. For too long the American dream has been just that, a dream. It’s time folks that we collectively and cooperatively make it a reality.
Let’s talk about what conservation can and can not do for us. Conservation can’t make energy, our best conservation efforts won’t eliminate the need for primary sources of energy. Conservation beyond a point entails lifestyle trade-offs that for many are unacceptable. Some people might be happy in an 8×10 foot room with a couple of LED lights and eating only raw vegetables, but many of us can not be happy that way, we are biologically omnivorous, we like to have a little space, we need intellectual stimulation and physical exercise. Providing for these things requires substantially more energy than the most simplistic survival lifestyle.
Conservation can significantly reduce the size of the problem. There are many conservation measures that we can take that not only don’t reduce the quality of our lifestyle but can actually enhance it. We should be pursuing these with a great deal of zest.
In the short term, to some degree we are going to have to rely on dirty energy sources, to the degree which conservation can reduce demand, it reduces the environmental damage caused by those sources.
More than 26% of our nations total energy consumption is radiated away as 60 Hz electromagnetic radiation or dissipated as heat in our nations power grid. That is, more than 1/4 or our energy is wasted in our antiquated inefficient electrical distribution system. A good portion of that energy comes from the dirtiest possible source, coal.
Eliminating the waste in our electrical distribution system or at least reducing it to it’s practical limits, would make huge impact on our nations carbon foot print. The single largest waste on the grid is in the long distance AC transmission system. The problem is long wires act like antennas and radiate a good portion of that power away. Not only is this wasted energy but power line frequency electromagnetic radiation has been shown to increase the rates of leukemia, lymphoma, and some other cancers. Harmonics of 60 Hz also cause the familiar buzzing radio interference while listening to AM stations.
The solution to this problem is to convert all transmission lines which are 300km or longer to DC transmission. DC lines do not radiate. There is a small conversion loss at either end of the line, converting from AC to DC, and then at the other end from DC back to AC, but it is less than 1%, and for any lines longer than about 300km, the reduction in radiative losses more than compensates for conversion equipment losses.
This change would reduce losses in our electrical distribution system to about a quarter of what they presently are, eliminate cascading failures, and provide immunity to space weather induced failures. In addition it would greatly increase the capacity of our grid system enabling a larger share of renewable sources to power the grid. This single change would save almost as much energy as we currently import and it would only improve our lifestyle by reducing power brownouts and blackouts.
Energy wasted in the distribution system is only one source of waste in our electrical system, the other source is the mismatch between demand and supply. Our generating system has to be designed to meet peak requirements, which tend to happen during mid-day. But neither coal fired plants nor nuclear plants can be effectively throttled. It takes too long to bring up the reaction rate in a nuclear plant from a shut-down condition, about three days, and coal fired plants also can not change their combustion rates rapidly. The result is about 75% of our generation capacity runs at full tilt all the time, only natural gas and hydro-electric generation lends itself well to being throttled. Our nighttime demand falls to much less than 75% of peak and as a consequence all of this excess energy is wasted. Coal is burnt, heat goes up the stack and is lost; nuclear fuel is fissioned, waste is created, but heating up the cooling towers and downstream water is all that we get from it during the night.
What if there were a way we could capture and use all of this excess energy when we needed it? Well, it turns out there is. If the nations commuters replaced their cars with plug-in electric hybrids with an all-electric range of 40 miles or more, almost the entirely daily commute could happen without the use of gasoline, and there is enough wasted generating capacity at night to charge all of those vehicles without fissioning a single additional gram of uranium or burning a single additional ton of coal.
Switching all of our commute vehicles to plug-in hybrids would enable us to eliminate our oil imports. This would remove all the carbon dioxide generation associated with those oil imports without putting a single additional carbon atom into the atmosphere from power generation.
If we did this AND converted all of our 300km or longer transmission lines to DC transmission, and added some East-West interties so that we could take advantage of time zone differentials, we could eliminate all oil imports and 15-20% of our coal and natural gas usage for electrical generation. So that’s what conservation in just two areas CAN do for us and it’s quite a lot! That’s what conservation can do without getting into all the little things we can do at home, switching from incandescent to compact fluorescent and as technology allows, to LED lighting.
Incandescent bulbs convert between 3-5% of their electrical energy into visible light, compact fluorescents between 15-20%, and currently available LED’s from about 15% to 30%, but LEDs in the laboratory have achieved close to 100% conversion efficiencies producing more than 300 lumans/watt which is approaching 100% efficiency.
People have various objections to compact fluorescents, but most of those are based upon bad experience with older technologies, though the garden variety CFL bought at your local retailer still has much to be desired in my opinion. The cheaper CFL bulbs tend to have two phosphors, one producing a greenish light and one producing an orangish light balanced to give the appearance similar in color to an incandescent bulb, and while on a white wall the color may appear similar, the CFL’s short comings become apparent when you have colored items, reds appear extremely dark because CFL’s give off very little red light, the same is true of violet, and blues and yellows appear muted.
You can buy full spectrum bulbs that, while not providing the completely continuous spectrum of a black-body source, does have lines in all of the colors from violet to red and thus render color much more vividly. Phosphors that provide these colors are more expensive and this cost is more than reflected in the cost of the CFL bulb. The other thing is that the eye is less sensitive to colors at either end of the spectrum than those near the center and as a result these full spectrum lamps appear dimmer than their orange/green counterparts. I have found that even amoungst the cheaper bulbs, there is considerable difference in the quality of the phosphors used. So if you don’t like the color of one brand, try another. I personally have found the Phillips CFLs provide a more pleasing light than many. Lights of America bulbs tend to provide a cooler white with more blue and I think better overall color rendition but the quality of their ballasts seems to leave something to be desired. I have experienced a high failure rate with Lights of America bulbs.
Domestic heating and cooling is another area where we use a lot of energy but addressing that involves better insulation and more effecient heating and cooling apparatus which, like replacing vehicles, tends to be expensive.
It is clear though that conservation can buy us a lot even before we step into the realm of degrading our livestyle, in fact it is apparent that many of the things we can do will enhance it.
Look at plug-in hybrids for example, if we eliminate all that gasoline burning, the air quality in major metropolitan areas surely will be much more pleasant than it presently is.
But now we get realities to deal with. Our economy is already wrecked, most of us can’t afford to go out and buy a new plug-in hybrid, even if such were already on the market, which they aren’t in the United States.
So we’ve got to do other things in the short term, things we can afford to do, things like car pooling, bicycling, relocating closer to our work, or telecommuting and working out of our homes, and most of us can afford to replace our incandescent lamps.
We need to increase our nations domestic energy production so that less capital gets sent out of the nation and is available for things like improving the electrical grid, buying plug-in electric hybrids, and developing new energy sources.
To the degree that we rely on oil or hydrocarbons, our dependency should be completely upon domestic resources. We have more coal than any nation in the world, gasoline, diesel, heating oils, and jet fuel can all be made from coal. We have around 3.5 trillion barrels of oil in the form of oil shales, about half a billion of which is recoverable with existing technologies. Presently we have a federal moratorium on leasing of oil shale extraction rights. There is significant oil deposits along the continental shelf but we have a drilling moratorium prevent these from being tapped.
I’m not in favor of environmental damage that these sorts of projects would entail, however balanced against the damage we are doing in Iraq and the potential for a war with Iran, I think we should be developing our own resources. Beyond that, in my view it’s not ethical for us to inflict environmental damage on other parts of the world to sustain our own needs.
In California we’ve got heavy crude reserves approximately equal to those of Venezuala but we aren’t tapping them. I don’t know to what degree California’s environmental laws play into that, but even if we were to tap these resources, we lack the refinery capacity to deal with heavy sour crude. Given that heavy sour crude is mostly what is readily available, even though it’s more expensive to refine, the raw supply costs less and we should have refinery capacity to use it. We also have tar sands in other parts of the country that yield similar heavy sour crude.
I can envision a time when we no longer require oil at all, not just for fuel but where we can get hydrocarbons we need for plastics and what not by recycling existing materials, or agricultural and forestry waste, or even by the growth of oil-rich algae, but in the immediate future we are still going to need it.
One place we could grab some free energy from an clean up the environment in the process would be to retrieve the mid-pacific plastic whirlpool garbage and process it either into new plastics or through thermal depolymerization, into other hydrocarbon products. It would be nice to eliminate that floating garbage dump and given that it’s a potential energy source, why not tap it?
In terms of renewable sources, we’ve got plenty; for example we have enough geothermal sites in the non-sensitive areas of the Rocky mountains to supply the electrical energy needs of the entire nation. Likewise, we have enough wind resources in just three states to supply the entire nations electrical needs. A relatively small portion of our land devoted to solar power production could supply our energy needs. There are many other options, ocean currents, tidal, ocean thermal, wave power, etc.
We’ve got to commit the resources to do whatever we need to do to eliminate our dependence upon foreign energy now, keep our dollars at home and provide jobs here.