Holy Grails and other Illusional Myths –


People can get delusions. This applies to groups and even whole cultures as well as individuals. One of the older myths was the “Holy Grail”. People got all wound up about looking for it. There are still fringies who think they just might find it. Relatively harmless delusion and nice hobby. Nowadays there is another popular and persistent myth: that of high payback for “alternative energy sources”. The main problem here is a whole bunch of people, some burnt out old hippies, some great unwashed, and some otherwise mainstream, are whoopee-hollering without the faintest clue that their dearest dream is a myth. The problem is that we are getting politicians who are buying this. Not just lefties, either. Politicos are prostitutes, whether they tilt left or right.

Now, lets get a little historical perspective here. We used whale oil among other animal oil derivatives extensively until it was replaced by petroleum. This change was not for any great altruistic motives, but because the whales were getting scarce and the petroleum was cheaper and more plentiful.

Now, we can sit here all day and argue about whether oil is getting scarce or not. The flakier left-wingers insist that we are going to run out just any minute now. The flakier right says that we will never run out. (There seems to be some evidence that mama earth is still making petroleum). The truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. Anwar hasn’t been touched yet, and preliminary exploration shows that there is probably a 300 year supply at current consumption rates. There is lots more out in the Gulf that hasn’t been tapped yet. The current real problem is not oil, it is getting the derivatives. We don’t have enough refineries and with all the red tape is takes about 20 years to get a refinery out of the ground and producing and amortized. We generally won’t wait 20 years to see our profits. Right now, it is not the imported oil that’s killing us at the pump – it’s the gasoline that we are importing. Our clean air standards make our gasoline a lot harder to refine. That equals more money on imported gasoline, for sure.

We can also argue over other fossil sources of energy – are they going to last or whatever. Coal, oil, gas are all burned to produce heat to produce steam to drive a turbine to make electricity. Not terribly efficient, but it works and is affordable.

Ah yes, nukes. The French have been using nukes for years. They don’t seem to have too much of a problem with it. We had a relatively mild problem ourselves. But the Russkies – oh my! Available data indicate we haven’t heard the last of that one. It may get nastier. We may have to give up nukes or really improve them. The current state is a bit too chancy – and expensive. (It all comes back to moola).

Hydro – good source. But. There’s always a but isn’t there? It takes a boatload of time, money, materials and enough red tape to strangle all the elephants in the world. For starters, you gotta build one whopping big dam. Damn dams are not so easy to locate. You’ve got to find a reliable river. You’re going to flood a whole heap of land. The inhabitants may object. If there are no inhabitants of the homo sap variety, the EPA will object on the part of the non-sap dwellers. If there’s a really humongous waterfall handy, you can use one of those. We seem to have already tied up the good ones. Further, the things are kind of expensive toys. Higher cost per KW than fossil plants. We probably aren’t going to do a whole lot more of those.

Now the current idea that we can get free energy from solar, wind, heat taps or what have you – well – TANSTAAFL applies here. TANSTAAFL? Well – around 1870 of thereabouts, bars used to offer “free lunch” to draw in the patrons. The lunch was, of course, not really free. You had to be buying drinks. The bars did very well, thank you. Now good old RAH (that’s Heinlein!) who wrote on just about every topic in the world, popularized this in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. If you haven’t read it your education is sadly lacking. Anyway – TANSTAAFL – There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. The watchword for just about anything in the universe. The laws are pretty absolute. Otherwise we could have perpetual motion machines. Now – anyone who has ever even looked at a physics book knows – there is no such animal and can’t be in this universe. This does not stop sophomoric idiots from devoting more time to dreaming on this than studying the real stuff. Like the laws governing entropy. P.T. Barnum said it well – “There’s one born every minute”.

Back to the topic at hand. The flakes and nuts are convinced that these energy for nothing dreams will work. Not so. Now it is quite true that we can get good energy from solar. The problem is that you must radically alter your lifestyle to get full benefit. And, of course, there’s the initial equipment cost. Now looky-here, when a power plant is built and distribution wiring is run to your little rose covered cottage, the initial investment is handled by a whole bunch of greedy capitalists, who damn well will get profit on their money. But there’s a bunch of them, and the cost gets spread really thin. Now, yes, you do pay your share, but it is spread waaaay out over a lot of years. Contrariwise, when you go off into the woods to do the solar thingy, you bear ALL the setup costs. It’s really samey-samey over a long period of time. But your pocketbook notices that big bite rather more than the slow bleed.

Mostly what people mean by solar is just some collectors to get hot water – a proverbial drop in you little bucket of consumption (and a loooong payback). You want to talk some serious dinero, try setting up your very own personal solar arrays and Rankin cycle engine for the real independence. The solar to get you totally energy independent will cost you about 50 years all at once – gulp!

Now I’ve got it! Lets do windmills! Okey-dokey. Not a bad source. Let’s see we need lots of open land with fairly constant wind. Like a good shoreline? Mr. Lean-left enviro-fiendly Kennedy (who owns oil companies!) said he didn’t want those damn things near his neighborhood, they blocked the view. This is rather the view of most people near good land for windmills. See, tain’t just a matter of one or two of the ungainly things, it takes a whole bunch to do any serious energy generation.

Now, does this mean that we should stop looking for alternative sources? Not at all! But, in the name of all that’s dear, don’t start legislating. We ain’t there yet. I don’t know if a cheaper and more efficient and cleaner way of sucking up energy is out there or not (we cannot create energy, just modify and channel it). I’ll bet that it is. But we need innovative thinking and greasy knuckled people looking into it. Not people who think that pi can be 3.00. Good, hard-headed engineering types. What I would say to the wilder-eyed is that some research funding is needed. So – contribute! But don’t rob me to do it.

When the real deal is figured out, said figurer is going to be very popular. And very rich. And it won’t just be the politically correct who ditch high dollar energy. When the economics is right, everyone will get energy friendly.


2 Responses to “Holy Grails and other Illusional Myths –”

  1. Meg Says:

    Personally, I have always maintained that the most efficient and environmentally friendly form of travel has been the bicycle, for short distances, and the locomotive, for long distances.

  2. Bob Says:

    If Leonardo da Vinci had proposed electricity from solar energy (or maybe he did?), you would have called him a crank.
    That some stupid cranks developed solar electrics was probably helped by being able to see and feel the energy in sunlight.

    The ‘cranks’ who now suggest tapping energy from an invisible source, such as zero-point-energy, might soon be laughing all the way to the bank when they think back to, apparently level-headed, naysayers such as yourself.

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