Sunday, March 7, 2010

Energy Roundtable

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is Roundtable time once again. For those of you whom might be new to the blog, the Roundtable is one of two group segments we run here. The first, Snap Judgments, asks for us to put together our most immediate responses to current events to be posted only hours after asking. The Roundtable, on the other hand, focuses on broader issues and gives the Gentlemen a week or more to do research before tendering their responses. And on this particular topic, there was much research to be done indeed, for today we will be discussing Energy.

I gave the Gentlemen a bit more research material to work with than usual this go-round, because there is a lot to be had. It all started when I learned of Norway's monstrous new wind turbine. That led me to further research advances in electricity-producing technology, such as Bill Gate's nuclear miracle, the astonishing Bloom Box, and this discovery about artificial photosynthesis found by fellow Gentleman Damien Nichols. Together with a map detailing the amount of the Earth's surface we'd have to cover with solar panels to power everything, these articles provided the basis for our topic.

Namely, at the current time, nearly half (and by nearly half I literally mean 48.2%) of all our electrical needs are met by burning coal. Coal - it's cheap, it's plentiful, and it gets the job done. Given the fact that our energy crisis currently relates to oil (of which practically no electricity is produced from) should we be putting so much time and money into changing the status quo when the free market is making no such demands for us to do so?

Let's see what the Gentlemen had to say.

Stephan Bragale

Well that all depends if methane gas from arctic permafrost is to be considered part of the free market...

Biodiesel Graham

Okay here's the thing I think about new technology vs. old technology. It definitely sucked for the oil lamp producers and lighters when electricity became the norm, and it sucked for scribes when Gutenberg invented his printing press. But new technology is new technology and if it truly is better for our ugly, dying world (which I know in some respects is yet to be proven) then it is important that we embrace it. And there are so many new jobs to be created in green energy technology, and so much money potentially saved in heating and electric bills at homes and businesses that I think it is a fair trade. Also people don't get black lung from mining solar panels, so that's another plus.

Brett Abelman

"When the free market is making no such demands to do so?"

What does that mean? Who is the "we" putting the effort in? The entrepeneur/venture capital firm that invested in the Bloom Box is part of the free market. There are certainly plenty of people into the 'green' movement right now, and non-polluting methods of producing electricity therefore have value to many people. There's also always additional value in new technologies and investing in the future; maybe wind turbines and nuclear miracles aren't "needed" today, because we have abundant coal, but who knows what applications they may be useful (and profitable, and saleable) in, in the future. And all these products, however unnecessary, still produce a usable product - electricity is electricity, just at a greater initial cost.

If the objection is to the government spending tax dollars on cleaner technologies, then, again, while the initial costs might be greater, we're still 1) producing electricity, 2) increasing our ability to produce electricity in multiple ways in the future, when coal might not be abundant or we want to produce electricity on, say, extraterrestrial colonization scenarios, and 3) serving the extant demand for greener technologies.

After all, electricity isn't that much of a free market issue at the moment; most of us are pretty much stuck with whatever production method the local electric company uses. Perhaps in the future, people will have more ability to vote with their wallets over what production method was used for their electricity - in which case we'll see how much more folks are willing to pay for cleaner stuff - but at the moment, only those with significant cash and know-how are able to use solar panels and credits and stuff to go green.

If we lived in a purely capitalist economy, the free market question would be more apt, but we sure don't (and haven't for a long time, if ever, regardless of who has been in office).

So there.

Max "Mr. Electricity" Nova

The big issue with clean energy is scale, a solar or wind farm will still only serve a fraction of a coal plant. So here's a more radical idea, tie all real estate growth and development to clean energy. ie when you build a new building or a cul de sac of houses and you have to get a certain percentage of energy from clean sources. The amount could start low and increase as time goes on. This would make people think more about smart growth and clean energy.

John Ozkirbas

On the energy proposal plan:

I think Bedrock from HanaBarbara's the Flintstones had a pretty sold energy system. Clean yet efficient. Industrial, yet green. If we expended all energy usage through foot-propulsion and the exploitation of talking prehistoric animals, the human race's carbon footprint would be barely noticeable! I mean, they only waste that would really be produced would be manure, and that stuff's all usable. In fact, our society would have to revert to its agricultural roots in order to care the plan out, so it would pretty much be necessary. Win-Win. The only people that would be pissed is PETA. But, who cares what PETA thinks. Now all we need is some prehistoric animals that talk - which shouldn't be too hard. I mean, I wasn't the only one who saw Jurassic Park. Somebody has to have that on lock down. Given, that could just be the part of me that wants the opportunity to off-handedly comment, "Clever girl," to a velociraptor. In that case, I say we wait for Steve Jobs to invent the iReactor - the world first touch-screen interactive fission device. Because who doesn't want a nuclear reactor that synchronizes with your iPod or iPhone?

David Pratt

It's time for a confession. When I put this question into place, I left out a critical fact that I was hoping some of the Gentlemen might come across.

Coal mining in this country is not all it's cracked up to be.

The coal industry accounts for .12% of all jobs in the U.S. workforce, despite their claims that, due to jobs they affect indirectly, millions of people benefit from coal. The industry constantly points to the heavy economic dependence of West Virginia as justification for them to remain in the state and continue with their environmentally disastrous campaign of mountaintop mining which devastates the local wildlife and leaves toxic runoff in the drinking water. Even as they do this, they abandon eastern mines - West Virginia included - in favor of the more abundant coal veins found in states like Montana and Colorado. In doing so, they leave the landscape in ruins and the people destitute, with little or no political action taken against them.

Despite employing less than 90,000 people, coal provides nearly half of our electric needs across the country. This is largely due to the fact that coal has been the focal point of our technological advances in producing electricity for over a century. Now that new technology is moving in, with enough funding given to research it is only a matter of time before coal begins lagging behind. Already there are options which far outclass coal in terms of environmental impact, actual electric output being the last hurdle to climb.

Personally, my stake would be in harnessing nuclear energy. It's clean, efficient, and produces an enormous amount of energy. If the research Bill Gates is currently funding pays off, then we would essentially have inexhaustible amount of fission power with a negligible environmental impact. The problem is getting people to trust nuclear power; despite the advantages, people hear "nuclear power plant" and imagine horror stories about the still-glowing Chernobyl. While the disadvantages are present, and some downright scary, if we can responsibly harness nuclear power, the world is our oyster.

And from a purely economic standpoint, clearly the correct course of action is pursuing greater electrical production through varied means. Wind power alone accounted for more jobs in American than the coal industry last year, and as opportunities in energy-producing fields grow, so too will the benefits they provide the American economy.

We demand a lot from the coal industry now because it's convenient to do so, and they have some excellent lobbyists peppering us with reasons to continue. The fact of the matter is, however, that the more we put into alternative energy research, the greater dividends it ultimately pays for America.

There you have it. Those are our thoughts on the energy problems facing the country, what are yours? We'd love to hear from you, especially regarding any other amazing advances made in the field that we left out here.

Until next time, this has been the Roundtable.

1 comment:

Ozkirbas said...

I think Mr. Electricity here provides a very practical, workable solution. Just throwing that out there.