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More Power ? We Canna Take Much More! by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Column  ISBN/ITEM#: 0510EL
Date: October 1, 2005 / Show Official Info /

The reason we don't have all the toys of the future comes down, more often than not, to the issue of power. You want flying cars, jet packs, and vacations on the moon? You've got to liberate massive quantities of energy to get them. Which means atomic energy, be it fusion, fission or antimatter, and though that genie promised to grant our wishes back in the 50s, the catches in his grants made it a zero sum game. At best.

Which is not to say I'm against atomic power. I'm more a fan of fusion than splitting the atom, but I'm not deathly afraid of radioactive waste. I've handled my share of the stuff and don't glow in the dark. There are some good new designs for reactors that provide less waste, including the "pebble bed reactor" and besides, who says a little radiation is bad for you? There's indications of the opposite (look up radiation hormesis) which is to say that we really don't know how organisms really react to low levels of radiation, but shouldn't assume it's all bad. Nonetheless, it does look like more danger than domestic bliss, and the issue I really want to look at is whether we really needed all this power anyway.

Massive power has only one use really, to move heavy objects at high speed over great distances. Yes, we can also use it for desalination and other things, notably heating or cooling homes, but we when you look at mankind's use of fuel, I'm pretty sure you'll find transport takes the top slot. We're moving increasingly towards moving virtually around space via the internet, and this massless motion offers the possiblity of massive fuel economies.

Here in the US we just had the worst September ever for a number of American car manufacturers, reeling both from artificially reduced prices over the past few months and the (for American's) astronomical price of gas, which coasted smoothly over the 3 dollar mark during the recent spate of hurricanes. Toyota, makers Prius, one of the most popular hybrid cars, had it's best September ever, by the way. Maybe fuel prices are finally getting through to Americans.

There's a lot of buzz about "energy independence" but as far as I'm concerned it's lip service. Certainly no one wants it in their backyard, be it a farm of windmills or a coal burning power plant. I live in Alexandria, VA at present, just a stones throw from a beautiful view of the capital on the Potomac, and I happen to have a coal burning power plant in my backyard, or at least on the other side of the train tracks which bring coal from West Virginia to power the DC region.

Personally, I love the plant. To me it's a beautiful piece of industrial architecture, and the sound of slow coal trains banging together in the darkness is cool...we call it the dinosaur's dance, though perhaps the fern's last frolic would be more appropriate.

If we really wanted energy independence, the plant wouldn't be in danger of being shut down for air pollution; we'd be rallying around it finding money for better scrubbers for the output. I suspect that the real agenda here is that if the plant were bulldozed to the ground more condos on the Potomac could go up. Needing more energy to heat and light.

But if we really wanted energy independence we'd just step up and take it. Tragically, people only adopt alternate energy when the cost of oil makes it really attractive. As long as it remains in the hands of a few early adopters good technologies can't take advantage of the cost benefits of mass production and competition for larger markets. My friend and DVD reviewer, Steve Sawicki, recently had a house built which uses Geo-Thermal heating...though the electricity it takes to move the heated water isn't cheap and he had to re-engineer the system after the installer bungled it the first time. We need more of that.

I'm naturally parsimonious. If you don't know and are too lazy to look it up, just think "cheap". I prefer "value oriented". I don't like wasting things on general principles, mostly, I suspect, out of a Yankee sense of stewardship that my New England ancestors left me. We really are taking care of all this for whoever comes next, and I don't see much virtue in using it all up just because we can. What is this...the world's biggest potlatch? It's certainly a bonfire of global proportion, and the heat pollution we're creating is undoubtedly going to have an unpleasant impact on our environment. One we'll want to use more energy to offset so we can stay comfortable. Can you say "positve feedback?"

It's a popular notion that if the entire world population wanted to enjoy the standard of living of the United States we'd need the resources of twenty planet Earth's. I've got a counter proposal which makes more sense. How about developing a standard of living that takes one twentieth the natural resources of the average American?

I'm not talking about being cold in the winter or hot in the summer, but using better insulation so that solar heating can carry the load, and more green spaces so that natural cooling can take place. Yes, I bicycle to work, at least on the days I don't walk...but I took a low paying job nearby so that I'd be able to, and I understand that it's not a simple fix for most of us.

On the other hand, a lot of the energy we waste we do so to protect our families. Commuters live in the suburbs so that their children can be protected from the urban areas they work in. SUV's are just the latest attempt to get the upper hand in game of Mutually Automotive Destruction, and if the cost is the resources that the same children you wanted to protect, well that's a problem you hopefully won't be around to take the rap for.

If we can put a man on the moon, which of course we can't, let alone Low Earth Orbit, why can't we develop a sustainable energy lifestyle? We could, and I'm of the opinion that it would be one we'd be happier and healthier living.

Solar, clean coal (which is not an oxymoron), biodesiel, geothermal, I like them all, even if they're not "cost effective" at present. Maybe, if we're really lucky, Middle Easter oil will become too expensive to burn. The next time you drive 30 miles in your average sedan, stop to imagine burning up a five dollar bill. was it worth it? How about a twenty?

It's not like no one is doing anything, either. On the National Mall this month you'll find a competition to build energy independent housing, complete with alternative energy vehicles. It's sponsored by the DOE, and you can see information about it at:

It's up to us to show an interest beyond the impact on our wallets in order to encourage this technology. Yes, it's about saving the world, and it's really up to us.

Ernest Lilley
October 1, 2005

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