On Gossamer Wings of Wire

24 Jan

This will not be an easy post. Talking about anything to do with energy is not a popular topic. However, it behooves me to open up and spill the beans.

I enjoy HF Amateur Radio for its simplicity. It amounts to two or more individuals using “Gods Gift” of the ionosphere to communicate with one another with no intervening infrastructure. No server farms, no central offices, no cell towers or even any telegraph offices. Just two or more folks using very little energy affecting two way communications. This communications can be reliably accomplished with one to hundreds of watts and little else. Perhaps a hank of wire strung into a tree and a simple pair of wires to feed it-thats it.

What does this have to do with energy? Well, we appear to be running short of it. 2005 will be the year to remember. May to be exact, was the worlds peak of production of fossil liquids production. Since then it has been downhill. Since May 2005 the world is producing less fossil fuel and has produced more consumers for the remaining supply. That is why energy prices continue to rise. To make matters worse the Middle East, supplier of 40% of the worlds day to day energy is producing consumers faster than the first and third world combined, thusly not able to sell to needy importers like Chindia, US or the EU.

When one tries to talk about energy you have to understand BTU’s. British Thermal Units. How many BTU’s does it take on the input to get how many BTU’s output? That is the basic equation. Old oil wells in the middle east took very few BTU’s input (energy) to get great numbers of BTU’s output back in the 40’s. Now it takes more BTU’s everywhere to get less BTU’s out. Off shore drilling takes a lot of BTU’s in to get fewer and fewer out. Fortunately, the net energy out is still positive. You may think ethanol is the answer but in ethanols case (made from US corn) it is argued that an efficient plant can get 1.25 BTU’s out for every BTU in. Hardly worth the effort and that is WITH subsidies. Should the subsidies be removed the whole house of ethanol cards would collapse.

So what about other sources?

  • Nukes take 20 years to construct-all those years of construction while we fritter away fossil fuels. Meanwhile the earths supply of Uranium Oxide is perhaps the same as coal (see below).
  • Coal is a non starter with Kyoto and Global Warming. If suddenly we turned off oil and natural gas and switched on coal we would have 40 ish years remaining of coal reserves.
  • Solar-the CEO of Exxon once said it would take all of New Jersey to be covered by solar panels to produce the energy that 10 of his service stations dispensed in a single day. Solar remains 15-18% efficient.
  • Algae. This seems to be the best chance although it would create a monumental materials handling issue. Convert several hundred square miles of western desert to saltwater ponds fed by the sea and grow oil rich algae to be harvested and processed into transportation fuel. Bio Diesel.
  • Natural Gas. I treat this as fossil fuel except that it isn’t easily transportable. It usually requires pipelines to move it and there are no pipes beneath the sea. Third world gas comes by LNG trains (ships transporting frozen Natural Gas). Easily more expensive than locally produced natural gas. Its production has peaked as well.

How will you know that what I say is true. Watch food prices. Food is energy. The chain begins with fertilizer (natural gas) and ends with transportation to your local food mart and its ensuing use of freezers to keep it fresh. Secondly I believe that there will come a time in the not too distant future that you will flip on a light switch and it will not come on reliably. I would wager that that time is within 3-5 years. Watch transport fuels. 5 dollar gasoline is not far off.

The best way to improve energy supplies is to stop squandering it. Conservation is key. Someone once said the most energy conserving measure America could impose is a return to the use of the clothesline. Sometimes simpler is better.

Some thoughts to provoke a sense of conservation:

  • Shut down all commercial broadcast stations and replace the bandwidth with satellite equivalents.
  • Tax gasoline at about 5 dollars a gallon. Give worker/ commuter transportation discount chits.
  • Reserve subsidies for only the top three net positive energy producers.
  • Encourage local food production.
  • Encourage electrical conservation by exchanging transportation chits for savings in electrical base use.

Remember that all energy is solar. Should it be wind (solar convection currents), hydroelectric (stored solar via wind/rain) or solar electric, it all comes from our sun. Fossil fuel is solar energy stored for millions of years and is our earths legacy to any creature smart enough to use it. Even uranium is solar in that our earth is made of the stuff of dead exploded suns from billions of years ago. Our endowment of stored energy is becoming less abundant and we need to live closer to the natural creation rate of energy that the sun can provide.

Everything old is new again. I hope this gets you to thinking about your consumption habits and perhaps changes some of your use patterns. Good luck.

Best, Chas

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Posted by on January 24, 2008 in Energy, Radio


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