Monday, January 9, 2012

The Future of Energy

Getting active with a blog again has reminded me of the energy blog which I was doing earlier this year, before an overwhelming amount of spam and an underwhelming amount of real interest killed my enthusiasm for it. I'm still interested in the question of green energy, and, let's face it--it looks bleak at the moment.

When I sat down to write this, it was going to be about how screwed we are. But then I remembered the key ingredient that means there is hope. We're not going to face economic collapse when we run out of fossil fuels, when none of the "alternative" energy methods are capable of producing energy on the scale we need.

I hate to say it, and you're probably all going to kill me for it, but that hope is two words: Nuclear Power.

Of course, Nuclear comes with it's own down-sides, of which I'm sure you're all aware. But the simple fact is that it's the only method we have of producing energy on the scale we need, other than fossil fuel. And fossil fuel is both more limited and even more controversial and dangerous. It will only buy us a couple centuries. But that should be plenty of time for the march of technological discovery to completely shift the paradigm.

Let's look at the other options:

Solar Power: Currently unable to produce energy on the scale that we need it. A good way of taking the edge off, but nothing more. To even attempt more would be to blanket deserts in solar panels, (and that still wouldn't be enough) which will probably never be attempted due to the eyesore, environmental damage, and expense.

Wind Power: Cannot produce power on the scale we need, even if the capabilities are maximized. Not even close. Also, it wreaks havoc on already-threatened bird populations, and many people complain it is an eyesore. (I happen to like the aesthetic of wind farms, myself. They are deliciously desolate.)

Fossil Fuels: Nobody likes it, but these will remain a staple for a long time, until other options become economically more feasible. We have enough for another 50-100 years--but that's total in all the earth. To get it, we need to go to increasingly distant and dangerous locations. We're talking arctic drilling, deep sea drilling, and massive implementation of coal plants. I'd rather see nuclear power, which is at least clean when it's working properly. The biggest danger here is climate change due to pumping carbon into the atmosphere, which is a very real possibility--but I think there has been enough international attention now to avert that potential disaster. I hope. God, I hope.

Bio-Fuel: *spitting rage* Don't even get me started! This is the most blind and short-sighted example of environmental activism that I've ever heard of! Expensive, inefficient, incapable of meeting our needs, AND it takes as much fossil fuel in transportation and fertilizer to produce it as it produces. It's a way of taking X amount of fossil fuel and using up a lot of land and money to produce an equivalent amount of Bio-Fuel. Ridiculous. The sooner we cut this the better.
[Edit: It has come to my attention that there is a type of bio-fuel, cellulosic, which is made from wood chips and inedible plant matter such as corn cobs. This, and other bio-fuels made from waste products, are not only OK but fantastic. But growing corn for fuel is ridiculous and should be outlawed.]

Nuclear: Nobody likes it, but it's the only method of producing energy on the scale our society requires. Also, when it works, it's clean. Catastrophic failure of nuclear plants is, well, catastrophic. But when you're providing power to cities, you're playing Prometheus. Nothing is safe.

My Forecast: Continuing scares around energy shortages and battles over protected land for oil rights, but as fossil fuels become untenable due to resource shortages and environmental regulations, the slack will be picked up by nuclear power. This should get us an extra century or three, and by then we should be able to find a solution to the question of getting energy from massive orbital solar-collecting satellites down to cities and industrial centers on earth.

All told, we're probably OK. Unless we don't get filters on those goddam coal plants going up everywhere.


  1. Mmmm, nuclear waste isn't clean, though.

  2. You're absolutely right. Disposal of it is a big problem. To paraphrase Churchill... nuclear power is the worst form of energy production, except all the others that have been tried.

  3. I suspect that, if we solared up every building that was appropriately placed, we could do better than take the edge off. It actually looks pretty nice (in my opinion), and doesn't damage the environment any further than the buildings. Sure, it might not cover everything, but it would go a long way.

    The biggest issue is cost: solar is far from cheap. While putting solar panels on the roofs of all those buildings sounds like a nice idea, it would cost a ridiculous amount of money. Something like 10k+ per building.

  4. Jesus, that's a lot of money. I've also heard less than stellar things about the environmental effects of building all those solar panels. That would be another consideration... what kind of resources do solar panels consume in their construction? How long do they last? And what sort of waste do they create, both in construction and disposal?

    At the end of the day though, that's more detail-oriented than I'm looking with this blog post. We can deal with waste if we have to, one way or another, and I'm sure disposal and recycling techniques can be improved. Cost, on the other hand, is a deeply relevant factor on the scales we're talking about here.

    We might as well start putting up solar panels anywhere we can. I don't think it will ever solve our energy problems, but every bit helps.

  5. I look forward to the day when we can collect the sun's energy for our purposes without A) The collectors doing as much damage as they save, B) People grafting others for the service, and C) It not being butt-ugly.