Energy Independence

Over the past twenty years, one gets the impression that the American dreams of a clean, renewable energy future have been slowly whittled away. Two decades ago, solar cells were still relatively new and held a lot of promise. This was at a time before the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear disasters, so the American production of nuclear power still reflected a positive outlook on fission power. The transition can be observed very directly as a leveling off in the number of new power plants [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fig_9-2_Nuclear_Power_Plant_Operations.jpg]. For many years, it was also believed that ethanol and other crops could, eventually, with better processes, achieve a cost and efficieny as good as gasoline.

Many of these alternative are now understood to be temporary solutions at best. In an now famous website on peak oil, Life After the Oil Crisis (LATOC), Matt Savinar provides a clear, consise description of how dependent the world is on oil. He shows that nearly all alternative energies are short term solutions at best. This is primarily because of the huge amounts of global energy currently consumed, around 35 Terawatts per year, almost entirely produced from oil. To equal this, it would require nearly 10,000 nuclear power plants, or every inch of California covered in solar cells. Even nuclear, solar, wind and biofuels combined could not match the current energy use of oil.

I believe that recessions are not just financial ups and downs. They reflect a deeper insecurity in the future of a nation, caused by an earlier period of boom which was not founded in reality. The lending market failed due to poor lending practices which were not based on the realities of human behavior. At the end of a crash, there is a point where one questions the basic premises the system. It is a time of re-evaluation, reflection.

We are presently at a point of redefining the American way. As Matt Savinar points out, conservation rather than consumption will be an important part of this. Already, people are shifting toward smaller, efficient cars and away from SUVs. But I think there is a much bigger shift that must take place.

The question is: What do we do now? I mean, practically, what does the American worker do now? Many of the industries which were formerly held in the US are now present in other countries. Pittsburg, PA for example, was once the world center for steel production. Now, steel has shifted to China. Many other markets, not only raw materials but most manufacturing, have shift to other countries.

I’ve heard many Americans complain about these lost industries. However, this should not come as a suprise. The reason is that the exporting of heavy industry is implicit in the American dream. A hard worker, in a steel mill, worked so that his/her children could go to college and avoid having to work in a steel mill. Even if the parents wanted their child to work in the mill, the child would often see a better life in science, computing and non-labor intensive careers. Over the past fifty years, we have intentionally shifted from a labor economy to a service economy.

At present, even the white collar, professional jobs are now being outsourced overseas. The computer industry is finding workers in India and China. Yet this too should come as no suprise. China has been a labor workforce for the past thirty years itself. In an interesting interview with a Chinese CEO, it was asked: “Aren’t the Chinese people interested in the kinds of labor-intensive jobs the United States can bring to them?”. This is the classical American view of China, that we shift industries to China that we are unwilling or uninterested in doing ourselves. However, the answer from China is now: “No. We don’t want the labor jobs any more, we want the high quality life of the service jobs too.” China sees the benefits of a service-based economy and like all post-industrialized nations, seeks to eventually eliminate intensive manual labor from its workforce. While China stil has a very high labor force, it also has one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world.

So, to summarize thus far. The world is consuming oil like crazy, and especially the United States (consuming 25% of total oil production). The US is heavily dependent on foreign oil, and there is a general understanding now that classical alternative energies such as nuclear, solar, wind, and biofuels are at best temporary solutions. So there are no easy alternative energies, and the jobs which would allow us to spend money on oil have mostly been shifted overseas. This is especially true of labor intensive jobs but now increasinly professional jobs as well.

What is America to do? The view presented by Matt Savinar is that things will get much worse. Gasoline may jump by 10x, reaching $30/gal, at which point the US food distribution network will fail since it is largely based on trucking. People will be unable to get food, and will resort to looting. Savinar suggests there may eventually be positive aspects, such as increasing dependence on community, self-reliance, and conservation. I tend to agree that a return to local, self-sustaining communities would be nice, but eventually life must continue to expand, even if it is only conceptually.

Thus, I prefer a different outlook. Consider that in the early 1900s the population of the United States was growing rapidly, yet solutions to food distribution, travel, and infrastructure we essentially unsolved. Rather than follow traditional methods, innovators created the steam engine, railroads, the assembly line, and much more. But it was not easy. It required huge amounts of manual labor, the Industrial age. Our parents and grandparents who built this era ultimately wanted a better future for their children, so they sent us to college while many of them did not. In addition, the Industry age made the United States a wealthy nation. As a result of these two things, my generation (post 1970s) is much more accustomed to things being easier. We don’t have to work as hard physically, we’ve inherited more wealth, and we now have an infrastructure that automatically provides many of our needs very cheaply. How much easier is it now, than in 1910, to get food, water, and shelter? Now, combine this with Rock-n-Roll (and all the genres that followed), which I love but which basically says you can do whatever you want, and you have a recipe for a society which strongly believes it can consume indefinitly and very little responsibility.

Its a natural outcome of what our grandparents struggled so hard for, that we wouldn’t have to work as hard. Our culture has now shifted to the opposite extreme, except that we’re now finding this cannot be sustained. The markets crash, oil pours into the Gulf, banks fail, and the infrastucture our grandparents built is eroding – and we don’t know how to fix it. A supurb example of this is the US Government’s involvement in the BP Oil Spill, remarkable because the US Government, largely responsible for building this nation, currently doesn’t have the physical ability to deal with the practical problems of an oil leak 5000 feet underwater, and must resort to an independent company. NASA is another example, where it is now viewed that independent contractors can build in-orbit vehicles to supply people and resources to space more cheaply than the government can.

In the early 1900s, American innovation built the world it wanted to see. The same opportunity is presented to us now. Except that now we have a much better picture of what that world could be. It cannot be too labor intensive, as it was for our grandparents, because then we don’t want to do it at all, and find or force others to do it. It cannot be too casual or easy either, or we loose the ability to fix our own problems. We also know the form our future labors must take, as the central problem is our energy dependence.

I believe some of these solutions are becoming apparent now. Did you know the US Government currently spends 50%, thats half, of its entire alternative energy solutions budget on the National Ignition Facility? The NIF receives the same amount as solar, wind, biofuel and nuclear combined. Why? Because in the past decade many barriers to fusion that we thought would make it impossible have been overcome. In the year 2010, for the first time a laser system may achieve the pressure needed to fuse a tiny pellet of deuterium (hydrogen) to ignite a reaction that currently takes place only in the sun, resulting in temperature of 7,000,000 degrees F, and an 11 Kiloton output, and more importantly producing more energy than it takes in. Full scale experiments are starting for the first time this year. Fusion, unlike fission, is magnitudes safer because it cannot start a chain reaction. If the fuel supply is stopped, the reaction stops. If successful, this form of fusion can provide enough energy for the next 4000 years, not just the next 40.

Did you know that there is now a solar cell which can be made from toothpaste and jelly? And its cheaper than silicon solar cells, while producing a similar amount of electricity? While traditional silicon solar cells have been around for fifty years, in 2001, the Dye-Sensitized Solar Cell was invented by Michael Gratzel based on observations of how plants perform photosynthesis. The result is a solar cell which is cheap, efficient, and can produce electricity even in low or ambient light. The solar cells are even transparent and can be embedded in glass so that building windows can generate electricity for the building. They are simple enough to make that high school kits are available to build Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells from scratch as class projects. More importantly, the invention is so new that industry has only just started to mass produce them.

We currently conceptualize our dilemma with oil at the center and all these alternative fuels on the periphery, struggling with the giant. We must shift our view. We must not just imagine, but see “alternative” energies at the center of our vision. Stop calling them alternative. We must be able to say: Our primary energy source is the sun. The way in which the energy problems are solved, like NIF and Dye-Sensitized Cells, are very likely to surprise us completely because they will be ingenious inventions.

Then what do we do, what is the new labor of the average person? Its good to have smart scientists, but we need people at every level. We simply need to learn again how to completely replace our infrastructure with new inventions. To mass produce dye solar cells (DSSC) is not so difficult, but to replace every building in the US with dye solar cell windows IS difficult. It has been very difficult to generate the laser power needed for nuclear fission in NIF, but this is mostly a scientific problem. A much more difficult problem is how to restructure our society to build the hundreds of laser fission-based plants that are needed to replace our oil dependence.

After the next hundred years, I can imagine two scenarios. The first possibility is that we don’t learn how to replace our fuel-based energy dependence. In this case we enter Matt Savinar’s version of the world with highly localized, self-reliant communities, resulting in major worldwide food shortages and likely a huge population reduction. The second possibility is that we replace our fuel-based civilization with a fission-based civilization. In this case, we have enough energy to sustain the world population for 4000 years, and this allows us to expand human kind to all the planets and to the stars. Which outcome you favor really depends a lot on what you think is the purpose of being human.

I want to emphasize this is not science fiction. This is happening now. We are soon reaching the world limits of population for a fuel-based civilization, and we are on the brink of entering the next phase. Whether or not we take this path depends on how well we integrate the lessons from the labors our parents and grandparents, and take the steps necessary to see our new source of global energy. While politics will play a part, this is not primarily a political responsibility since the effort needed to shift our infrastructure is too large even for a responsible government (and our partisan government isnt that). Each individual must be able to imagine their own future without oil.

One thought on “Energy Independence

  1. Nice article. It should read “laser fusion-based plants” at the end. I am surprised not see any information on magnetic confinement, and international effort, which is closer to commercialization than inertial confinement.

    Combining energy with other resources, I would agree that the key to our entropy future is throttling back our demand, not only on direct energy (transportation, comfort, convenience), but also indirect energy and resources (manufactured products, waste generation). Either now or our future generations. It is ironic that our predecessors struggled to give us a better life, one which will eventually lead to crisis and poverty for our progenitors if we do not restrain and intercede.

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