Low Energy

The glorious future is always just over the next mountain. The older you get, the taller that next mountain becomes and the further away it seems. It is this realization, this understanding, that young people often mistake for cynicism. They think their elders, poo-pooing their excitement for some new innovation, are just cranky old people unable to appreciate the dawning of the new age and unwilling to adapt to it. In reality those grumpy geezers are tired of sitting through the same film, never getting to the end.

I often feel that way about energy policy. Every decade we have a re-run of the same film, but never get to the end. Instead, everyone gets bored and walks out before the final scene where the utopian dreamer is fed into the woodchipper by a couple snaggletooth rednecks from coal country. Instead, the movie is cut short so it can be retooled for a new audience a decade later with the promise that this time, there is a new and improved ending. That is the catchphrase of every new plan to replace fossil fuels. “This time, things will be different.”

Here is a quote from Jerry Ford’s 1975 State of the Union speech, in which he laid out his energy plan: “I have a very deep belief in America’s capabilities. Within the next 10 years, my program envisions: 200 major nuclear power plants; 250 major new coal mines; 150 major coal-fired power plants; thirty major new [oil] refineries; twenty major new synthetic fuel plants; the drilling of many thousands of new oil wells; the insulation of eighteen million homes; and the manufacturing and the sale of millions of new automobiles, trucks and buses that use much less fuel…”

The only thing he got right was that cars use less fuel per mile, but that had nothing to do with the big dreams of the energy futurists. Fuel economy has steadily improved since the mass marketing of cars back in the stone age. That is due to better engineering. The cars not only get better fuel economy today, but they also ride better, they are of better quality, they use better components. A new car off the lot in the 1950’s suffered from rattles, wind noise, poor fitting components and it needed constant maintenance. In other words, fuel efficiency is mostly just a byproduct of better engineering of cars in general.

The rest of Ford’s agenda never happened. Later, Carter got on the solar bandwagon. In the late 70’s, everyone new that in the future, cars would be electric and be charged by solar panels. Every house would have a rooftop solar generator. Fossil fuels would go away entirely. The fact that none of this happened did not stop the dreamers from dusting off the solar fantasy again in the 2000’s. I am not sure, but I think the last big solar panel plant in the US shut down last year. If I eat right and exercise, I will live to see it re-opened again under another government free energy scheme.

What brought this on is this story in Scientific American last month. You would think that a publication with “science” in its name would be less inclined to fights of fancy, but that’s not how it works. It’s not how anything works these days.

The United States, Mexico and Canada will make a joint pledge tomorrow to draw half the continent’s power from non-emitting sources by 2025.

President Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada will announce the ambitious target at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa, Ontario, which will also address security issues and other concerns to the continent’s three governments.

White House climate adviser Brian Deese described the pact as a sign of the growing bonds between the nations on climate and energy policies. He told reporters yesterday that the trio are cooperating more on those issues now than at any time in recent history.

“We find ourselves now at a moment where the alignment in terms of policy goals and focus on clean energy between our three countries is stronger than it has been in decades,” he said.

None of this will happen. The big non-carbon power generation facilities are nuclear and hydro. We are not building those anymore. The people who swear Gaia is vexed with us because of our cars are the people that killed off nuclear and hydro decades ago. Then as now, the problem is Gaia. She did not like nuclear energy and she did not like us blocking fish from swimming downstream. According to the Gaia worshipers, she is not happy with solar or wind either so the odds of those technologies getting anywhere are close to zero, even before you get to the science problems of both.

That is the irony of the green energy movement. Even if the significant scientific hurdles can be overcome for things like solar and wind, the greens will scuttle the projects anyway. The same people banging their tom-toms over coal and oil are out blocking the so-called green alternatives. Nuclear, which has the most promise in terms of “clean” energy, has been stalled for generations now. Gen-IV reactors are extremely safe and productive. If not for the greens, we could have all our electric from nuclear, but that will never happen.

No one reading this will live to see the day when America is getting the bulk of its electric from nuclear. Your children and grandchildren will not live to see it. The most optimistic estimate puts the window for the change to nuclear well past mid-century. The most optimistic window for wind and solar is somewhere around the time we discover the warp drive. Instead, every decade or so we will have another round of nonsense about how some new green energy will finally ween us off of oil and coal. Billions will be squandered on it; the dogs will bark and the caravan will move on.

36 thoughts on “Low Energy

  1. Ah, the electric car. I still remember reading the science magazines in the 80’s as teenager. It’s right around the corner if we could just get these darn battery things to last. The only thing that become better about electric vehicles is the comfort level, but the battery charging and range still stinks. Yet, we are forced to subsidize a billionaire’s fantasy science project.

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  3. Yes, but… these repeat messages are like that old pop song you once liked on the radio (though admittedly hearing it a lot got to make it irritating) so these ‘new’ initiatives and statements are like a breath of fresh air. You can enjoy them all over again. Recycling never goes away.

    Sure, they still are inherently irritating but its fun seeing how they demonstrate that human beings never change. Same old, new old, you could say.

  4. On average a 42 gallon barrel of crude oil yields about 22 gallons of gasoline. So, what happens to the remaining 20 gallons? The other distillates are either used directly (airplane fuel, diesel, lubricants, heating oil, kerosene, etc.) or as constituents in more than 10,000 other products such as plastics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, etc.

    If gasoline consumption is reduced then there will either be critical shortages in all of the other products or the prices of these other products will increase. Then we would have to dispose of the excess gasoline35YT

  5. Solar and wind power, in my opinion, qualify as the mythical “FREE lUNCH”. I was made aware of the free lunch as a very young lad, I was watching the Three Stooges. The Stooges operated a restaurant which was losing money, Moe directed Curly to increase the price of the Free Lunch from 5 cents to 10 cents. Problem solved.
    A few years back I was project manager of the construction of a wildlife center, the project was a multi-million dollar affair of which the federal taxpayer funded half. Nearing the end of the project my client realized a sizable chunk of money earmarked for the project was unspent. The director of the facility asked me to estimate the cost of replacing the 1200 amp 3 phase service with solar. I knew this would not end well. At a meeting with the director and a flock of his assistants I was told they assumed a couple thousand square feet of panels could be installed on the roof and all would be right with the world, when I delivered the bad news one of the assistants shed tears. I told them there was no free lunch, they were shocked. In an attempt to soften the blow and make money I suggested a geothermal system to pick-up some of the heating and cooling load, when I described the system and installation process the director said it was too intrusive for the earth so we forgot about the whole deal and blew the rest of the loot on trinkets. Progs are insane.

  6. If you don’t already follow the business news on the energy sector already, you should know that there have been a wave of bankruptcies by the biggest of the solar power manufacturers this year and going back three years at least. In addition, Germany’s plans to shut down all of its nuclear power plants has resulted in large ripple effects through the nation’s nergy sector with the serious prospect of the largest ever bankruptcy in Germany’s history (http://dailycaller.com/2016/07/06/green-energy-could-cause-the-largest-bankruptcy-in-german-history/). About the only sector seeing growth (and that growth almost solely due to large government direct subsidies) is the offshore wind sector, which is now the new focus of the green’s energy policy for coastal states.

  7. We like to use this graph in arguments like this. It’s from the Bonneville Power Administration, and it breaks down power generated by source. Usually solar and wind power are minimal:


    I read an article by Steven Den Beste back around 2000, where he explained why alternates like wind and solar can’t be scaled up to replace conventional power sources. It was the first time I’d seen it explained so clearly and it made a lot of sense to me. I like to tell those that think solar is a good option to start using solar to replace the power in just one room. I’ve read about people doing that and it seems to me to be a good way to start if you really believe it will work for you.

    As for me, I’ve lived at least ten years without electricity during my lifetime. Electricity really does free up time to do other things. It is a lot of work to preserve food without electricity, wash clothes, light the house, etc. if you do not have electricity. I really can’t understand those that think we can do without it.

    • When the Greens attack Air Conditioning, then I really know they have lost it. Rather than question the current design methodology and look for better alternatives, no, they want to do away with it completely because it is bad for the environment. Never mind what a boon it has been for human kind quality of life and general productivity. The loons are one-trick ponies who want to go back to the stone age. Whatever happened to freedom of choice? If they want to live without A/C, by all means, enjoy! But don’t tell me how to live and force your lofty ideals on everyone else.

      • We are happily and swiftly led to believe that the civil rights movement changed the South. Well, I passed through the South way back in the day, and what changed the South was refrigeration, and nothing but refrigeration.

  8. My wife, who doubts much ‘non-renewable energy’ propaganda, asked a petroleum engineer, “How long does it take an abandoned gas well to replenish?” The engineer talked around the question, never giving an absolute answer, but did say wells renew over time.

    • Well, the fact is that many “depleted” oil and gas wells are still producing many many years after they should have hit empty.
      True, they produce at reduced outputs relative to their prime years, but they nevertheless still produce and no one really knows why this is.
      The generally accepted view of oil/gas formation – the biotic theory of oil formation – is that they are the byproducts of decomposed vegetation, which after millions and millions of years now “reside” thousands of feet under the present day surface, and merely await its discovery and extraction.
      This theory clearly implies that the reserves of oil and gas are finite (of course, Hubbert’s Peak Oil Theory is most commonly quoted by the greenies, despite the fact Hubbert developed his theory in the late 1950s when the methods of oil/gas discovery and extraction were, compared to present day technology, ancient, Nevertheless, Hubbert laid out his theory and somehow neglected to consider that ALL technology evolves and improves over time.)

      A different theory, and accepted by very few experts – the abiotic theory of oil formation – posits that natural elements within the earth (non biological in origin) such as CO2 and hydrogen combine to produce methane (a hydrocarbon).
      If this latter theory is true, and yes this would be a really, really big if, then the supply of hydrocarbons is essentially unlimited and could explain some of the still-producing depleted wells that forgot they were empty.

      • I don’t know how few is very few, but the Russian got it right. When a thing becomes valuable we assume it is rare, but the universe is littered with nothing so much as hydrocarbons such as great columns of gas clouds. Coal is a fossil fuel. Some gas is, oil never. Scientist are cunts like everybody else depending on government for funding.

    • My understanding is that up until recently, US/Canadian wells were too expensive to operate once they got to about 70% so there was a lot of oil left in the ground. The cost to get it was the issue. New technology now makes it possible to get the oil out at cheaper prices. People tell me that the US/Canadian drillers can quickly restart as well, thanks to modern technology. That means when oil prices rise, the US/Canadian wells can quickly come back on line. The result is a cap of sorts on the global rice of oil.

      The fact is, fossil fuels are great and they are getting cheaper, relative to other goods. Peak oil was complete nonsense.

  9. It’s important to recognize that every single item on Ford’s list was readily achievable in 1975, but then America began electing Democrats, or more accurately Progressives. Reagan tried to revive the Nuclear industry but Democrats blocked it in Congress, at the state level, and in the NRC. Bush II actually made an admirable effort to revive the Nuclear industry but was stymied by the NRC.

    Progressives have been waging war on the coal industry for 40 years, with the Obama administration dealing the death blow. They will destroy the fracking industry if Republicans in Congress don’t hold the line.

    America could have Inexpensive, abundant, and clean power readily available today. It does not because Progressives hate Americans and want them to suffer.

    • We have not built a refinery in 30+ years. There’s a new type of refinery coming on-line that takes natural gas and turns it into gasoline. Current costs result in $4 gas, but scale will drop it to $2 in a short time. The greens are against it.

  10. Sorry little missy, I got my fill of Pokemon O, back when it was miniaturized.
    We called it Pac Man. It didn’t involve trespassing, driving while distracted, and depending where you were,
    it DID involve a larger crowd of actual human interaction, and beer.

      • *sigh* SEE: First paragraph.
        Consider, chasing around a map to collect “dots”.
        Also consider how grumpy a geezer I must be if I recall actually meeting women (andgetting laid), from a place that served beer, AND had a Pac Man console. (They had cigarette pack vending machines too-are you ready? US$ 1.50, I think, but maybe that was the “Pong” era)
        You DO know what a standing Pac Man console was….right, RIGHT? You Do know “Pong”….RIGHT?
        Oddly, ” The glorious future (that) is always just over the next mountain” was the same.
        Different portmanteaus of course, but we all generally agreed on what words consistently meant back then.
        And yes, I realize that “If I have to explain it, I’m probably not doing it right”

        • Ah. At the time I thought maybe you’d commented in the wrong browser tab (me being ignorant of the Pokemon thing didn’t help) but I see how it’s germane now.

          And yes, I remember both of those things fondly. In fact Ms Pacman is my second stop after Qbert when I find myself at the beercade.

  11. Ha, Scientific American, I call it Scientific-lite. Heavy on progressivism. Progressive ideas have infiltrated even the technical fields. IEEE Spectrum used to be hard core science but now is filled with a bunch of alternative energy crap and going to Mars dreams. Like we have the money to do that. IF the Elites want to escape the problems of Earth to go to Mars, I say let them use their own money, not public funding. If you want hard core engineering info you have to dig other sources to get away from all the politically correct crap. Yes, yes, I know about all the tangential benefits to society from such an effort but we have bigger problems to deal with than finding a new habitat or playing Star Trek and “seeking out new life where no one has gone before.”

    Of course, if we had someone with guts to push an energy policy that made sense, there would be hell to pay from TPTB. Too much money invested in the petrol based economy.

    I have faith in American ingenuity and believe that if we set a goal similar to the Kennedy Space program of the ’60’s to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, we could accomplish great things. We couldn’t do it in less than a decade, not like the triumvirate of posers on the North American corridor say, but say a 50 year plan, something significant could be done. We would have to start with training a new generation of engineers and scientists and technicians who know real science and tackle a two pronged program of 1. weening the economy off of petrol based energy and transitioning the infrastructure as needed, and 2. developing new energy sources, or improving the ones we currently have, that will be those needed to replace the oil based.

    Lots of jobs, good jobs to be had throughout the economy from shovel ready to R&D and business and everything in between. Hope in the future. A purpose that people could get behind. And a way to definitely Make America Great Again! Just an idea.

    And I haven’t even started about rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. Don’t get me going. Obozo don’t know shit about shovel ready jobs. All he knows is crony capitalism, wasting money on his friends and screwing Americans.

    • @ LetsPlay – Your comments are spot on, but allow me to elaborate. 🙂 Humans have understood how to create energy for thousands of years. Obviously we’ve become more efficient at it in the last 200-years or so, but the real problem isn’t creating energy, its how to store it. That is the real challenge.

      Predicting power needs and power generation technology is always a tricky even by the most optimistic engineering teams and futurists. It is one of the great crystal balls of our day that remains cloudy and unseeable due to the limits of current engineering and material science, environmentalist concerns, corporate influence, the cost to the consumer cost, geo-political instability and of course resource allocation throughout the globe.

      Gen-IV reactors propose some interesting new technologies. Even when avoiding the use of water in favor of molten lead or molten salt coolant systems, the nuclear material is still the big problem. Efficiently and safety can be improved, but someone still has to manage the removal, transport and disposal of nuclear material. While interesting theoretically, Gen-IV reactors are still at an early stage of development and will probably not be available commercially for two or three decades.

      Oil is going away. Period. That is a fundamental fact of a finite, non renewable resource. Exactly when peak oil will hit is still up for debate, but the fact remains it will someday be gone. Coal, while plentiful here in Europe, is also a finite resource so it’s days are limited just like oil.

      Net-generation from renewable energy sources in the German electricity sector has increased from 6.3% in 2000 to about 30% in 2014. In Denmark, more than 40% of their energy supply now comes from wind power and the plan is to reach 50% by 2020.

      In Sweden, forest residue is the leading bioenergy source and bioenergy is the nation’s leading energy source. Since the 1970s when 70-80% of Sweden’s energy mix came from imported oil, the country has transformed its energy system to the point where oil is almost entirely a transport fuel, while bioenergy is used in district heating, industry and electricity production.

      Solar panels are generally limited to rectangular panels. They are bulky, heavy, not very adaptive to modern architecture and require a lot of land for solar farms. A number of companies are already working on ‘PV roof tiles” to replace our current European ceramic roof tiles(1), which are the dominant roofing material across all of Europe.

      Then there’s geothermal. The first geothermal power plant in Germany (2) started operation in Waren an der Müritz in 1984 and is still providing heat for 1,800 households today, three decades later. While not currently as popular as wind and solar, a rise in the use of hydro-geothermal energy is expected by 2030.

      LetsPlay – You are absolutely correct that America, and Europe, stand to gain a massive boost to their respective economies and job outlooks in the future of advances in energy technology.

      (1) http://www.noventec.de/produkte/solarthermie/solardachziegel-stein-rotivaplus.html
      (2) http://www.stadtwerke-waren.de/03,02,01.html

      • Karl, your routine keeps getting funnier all the time! (And I know, for a German, that’s really hard!)

        This time, its : “Oil is going away. Period.”

        That’s such a hoot, I cannot contain my mirth. People have been saying that for almost a century now and the world’s awash in more petro products than ever before. Oklahoma’s latest discovery, the Woolford Shale beneath that state’s historic heavy oil producers, appears to be as prolific as the Bakken field in No Dakota. And oddly, what were once considered as depleted Saudi fields, are now apparently re-filling from an unknown source.

        Peak Oil is a myth. Oil will never go away. Not when they keep finding it in the most unusual places. Often almost by accident! Just wait until they start really looking for it!

        • Forever is a long time. I’ve read estimates of enough oil for 500 years. It’s inexpensive, it’s incredibly abundant and will therefore be produced by capitalists and consumed by ordinary people until either it runs out or something less expensive and just as abundant comes along. If if does start to run out, we’ll figure out how to produce energy. We’re humans. We do foolish things, but we’re not stupid. It’s amazing what we can do when we have to. Peak oil and alternative energy are cons, like global warming, run by the Cult to control our lives and take our money and property.

          • True – it could be 5, 50 or 500-years. But the fact is it’s all a big guess and no ones knows for sure. And as it becomes more difficult to obtain, it will get more expensive. Basic supply and demand cost model. But alternative energy is really about contingency planning and creating a sustainable future – and not just for energy, but for all sectors. Science and engineering working to solve problems we will have in the future – and there will be problems.

        • Are you saying a finite resource can last indefinitely? Now that’s funny.

    • If you are near a library with a big magazine collection, compare an issue of Scientific American from 1965 with one from this year. The dumbing down is almost scary.

  12. Problem with most of the green types and their Progressive hangers on is that none are “system” thinkers. They develop a fetish for solar, or wind or ________ and then everything is about promoting their particular fetish. Ask a solar fetishist how you manage base and surge loads and you either get a blank stare or a chipper “battery storage!”. If the latter, ask a follow up on energy density and cost of current storage options, the economic chain of lithium supply and they usually go blank again. That’s how Germany ended up re-opening lignite pits to feed coal/steam plants to cover for over reliance on unreliable renewables. Similar fetish for the anti-frackers that come to my door asking for money in NY. Explain to them that the only reason the US, non-signatory to the Kyoto Treaty actually did better on CO2 emissions than the signers was because we fracked natural gas and substituted it for coal at a lower price (once cap cost for the plants figures in) and it emits half the CO2 per BTU. They cannot get their minds around that….and so it goes.

    • There’s an old gag in engineering where the process is meticulously diagrammed and one critical box is labeled “something magical happens.” That’s always been the problem with alternative energy. Electric cars sound like a great idea until you realize it means replacing the entire electric grid. As a rich man’s toy, they are great, but rich man toys seldom scale up.

      As an aside, I used to have fun telling greens that too many solar panels would result in darkness 24 hours a day because all the sunlight would be sucked into the panels. You would be surprised by how many fell for it.

      • That is fucking funny. Have to try it out. The grid issue is real. Was with a bunch of utility engineers a couple years ago and they showed us the calcs on what would happen if 10% of the vehicles in the average older suburban neighborhood went fully electric. Basically “replace and/or upgrade the entire grid”. Oops.

  13. It is hard not to become cynical. The gaia worshipping greens are knights-errant on fools errands. Hell, you can’t blame them. Even Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Clean energy is an acquired taste.

    • At least the Don had a real steed, lance and windmill to tilt at. Green energy is mostly a mist of promises and dreams. The one area I see tremendous strides in is battery technology. Some really good stuff coming from that area.

  14. Reading between the words. “We find ourselves now at a moment where the alignment (redacted) between our three countries is stronger than it has been in decades.” And Jupiter aligned with Mars. That dog was barking 40-plus years ago when I was in college.

    • Ditto. I was an Econ major at a UC school. Took “Economics of Energy” in the latter years of the Carter Administration. Energy was a big deal at the time, and while I don’t recall much, I DO recall learning that we would be plum out of oil by …….

      That date has come and gone, many times.

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