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Jul 1, 2008

Magic Power

Could They Do The Magic If They Wanted To?

A friend in college told me about his mother and what she knew about electricity. She regarded electricity as a type of magic and was resentful that she had to pay for it. She thought that it ran everywhere through the walls of the house. The reason that there were wall sockets was so the plugs on appliances would not damage the walls when plugged in. Otherwise, you could jam the plug anywhere and get the electricity. The plugs were designed so you could be charged for electricity when you used them. She was a good person, but didn't understand physics.

Electricity certainly is a type of magic supplied by a mysterious universe. It isn't free magic. Two wires run between a generator and an appliance. If you use the power of an engine or a waterfall to spin the generator, then you can absorb some of that energy in the appliance and force the appliance motor to spin, or let the energy escape into a resistance wire and get light or heat.

This only works if you build the generator, the appliance, make and install the wires, and power the system with other engines, using gas, coal, oil, nuclear, or water power. And dig up and refine the fuel for those chemical engines, or build the dams to control the waterfall. It has only taken about 180 years to get all of this developed. There is a bill for electricity because all of this work was and is done by people, and they want to be paid.

History 1821 First electric motor, 1837 Industrial electric motors, 1878-86 Commercial light and power stations, 1913 Electric refrigerator, 1953 345,000 volt transmission line.


This history is generally true for all of our technology. It all seems easy after it is done, but it is the result of continuing effort by millions of people serving hundreds of millions of people. It has taken time and immense investment to create and combine all of the pieces to get the current results.

People with little engineering knowledge (most people) become suspicious that it is all easier than they have been told. They think: those engineering nerds could give us all this and more for less cost, if they would only think a bit harder and do the magic better. Why not get electricity from sunlight and 100 miles per gallon from gasoline? It has been done! Don't they understand that we need this? They are the keepers of the magic, and maybe they are releasing the secrets slowly so that they can be paid more.

Politicians are pushing exactly this position under the phrase "addicted to oil". Politicians are saying that a little push here, and a subsidy there, will show the way toward an energy future that was being hidden by the nerds. Favored "green" companies will be paid by the government along the way. That is what "subsidy" means. And those companies will pay the politicians. That is what "campaign contribution" means.

"Political" means "sneaky and lying" in normal usage. It is amazing that people trust the announcements of politicians more than the system of free investigation and discovery that has produced our technological world. Political strategies written on cocktail napkins are supposed to replace practical scientific knowledge and careful investment in productive technology.

Federal and state governments have acted to slow the development of oil and coal, to slow the construction of conventional power plants, and to stop nuclear power and refineries. These activities are legal, so politicians say that they haven't stopped them. These activities are highly regulated, and many were allowed to get to completion when the regulatory process prevented operation, after all the money had been invested and lost.

Imagine being an investor in one of those projects that was regulated away. It only takes one or two such cases to effectively stop development.

Politicians have also slowed the development of wind and solar (!) because these affect scenic views or use so much land. Ethanol production is highly subsidized because the subsidies benefit farmers, who have an outsized influence in rural states. Ethanol is useful as a costly additive to gasoline to reduce emissions of ozone and unburned fuel. Not enough ethanol can be produced or used at present to replace gasoline.

An "addiction" is short feelings of happiness combined with a long, painful decline in health and thinking. My personal relation to oil involves hot showers, driving to work and play, and being warm in the winter. This is a comfortable life, not an addiction. The true addiction is the false hope of the extreme green movement. Short periods of self-congratulation are combined with a long decline in what people will enjoy in their lives.

"Weaning ourselves off of oil", implies moving from infantile to adult behavior, from a simple food provided in complete care, to an adult menu of natural food.

There is little other "food" to eat. There is no established path from "easy" oil to "adult" (what)? "Weaning" implies we are just lazy, and should go use the adult energy. There is no "adult energy", and no analogy.

I'm not against green. Use french-fry oil for diesel engines, if you can stand the smell. Put up a wind turbine, if you can get a permit and no one can see it. Cover your roof in solar panels, if you are rich. Just don't expect these marginal actions to support everyone. Not yet.

It may help to think about recycling, another program pushed by green government. Did recycling lower the taxes in your town? What are the efficiencies of having two big trucks come by on Tuesday rather than one? How many miles per gallon do those trucks get? Does the town pay a subsidy to the recycling centers, or do the centers pay the town? Do the recycling companies contribute to the "campaigns" of your town officers?

Don't block development of oil, coal, gas, and nuclear power. If you do, then french-fry oil, wind turbines, and expensive roof panels are what you are going to get. Maybe. After many uncomfortable or expensive winters.


Energy Matters presents an overview of types of energy production and some difficulties. See the section on Wind Turbines.

Ethanol Fantasy Fuels a Food-Price Nightmare
05/08/08 - John M. Berry at Bloomberg.com. About food prices, farm subsidies, and the futility and disruption of growing corn for ethanol fuel.

US halts solar energy projects over environment fears
06/2008 - The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is putting a two year hold on new solar energy projects on public land, to study the impact on plants and wildlife. "Solar plants may cover thousands of acres. We need to determine what the environmental consequences are. What does it mean when you spray the land with herbicides or remove vegetation?"

U.S. Lifts Moratorium on New Solar Projects
7/3/08 - The BLM announced that it was lifting the freeze, barely a month after it was put into effect. I suspect that the regulatory "hold" on the project was quite a thrill for the developers, and that this is welcome news. Do we live in a nation of stupid laws, or of political influence? The result for past proposed nuclear power plants was not so good.

Residential solar electric: still too expensive?
06/24/08 - A system that provides $420/year of electricity costs $40,000. This is a 1% return on investment, assuming no repairs or maintenance. Maintenance is conveniently up on the roof.

Alternate Energy - The 1% Test
7/18/08 - With some thoughts about engineering "magic".

Powering Down NY at The New York Post. From INSTAPUNDIT
8/04/08 A commision report approved the operation of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has a different view.

"It's no surprise that Entergy's panel of paid consultants has turned a blind eye to the unacceptable risks posed by Indian Point," Cuomo huffed.

Cuomo, of course, has been trying to get the plant closed for more than a year now - playing upon apocalyptic fears of environmental destruction or terrorist attack.

The Green Hornet
8/06/2008 - A Wall Street Journal opinion that questions Mr. Obama's energy policy. It nicely reviews the current energy structure of the US.

"On Monday, Mr. Obama said that the U.S. must "end the age of oil in our time," with "real results by the end of my first term in office." This, he said, will "take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy." Mark that one down as the understatement of the year. Maybe Mr. Obama really is the Green Hornet, or some other superhero of his current political myth."

Energy Policy for the Ignorant at Powerline
8/25/2008 - Comments about Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. She believes that natural gas is a clean non-fossil fuel, is against drilling for anything, and is setting US energy policy.

PELOSI: I'm -- I'm investing in something I believe in. I believe in natural gas as a clean, cheap alternative to fossil fuels.

Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits
08/27/08 - NY Times (via Instapundit)
Energy production is big and complex. We need a policy to empower knowledgeable people (businesses) to handle all of the details, not just a new idea here and there. Changing big things takes time.

[Increasing wind power] would require moving large amounts of power over long distances, from the windy, lightly populated plains in the middle of the country to the coasts where many people live. Builders are also contemplating immense solar-power stations in the nation’s deserts that would pose the same transmission problems.
Preparing 240 Miles of Power Lines for Winter’s Wrath
11/09/08 - NYTimes.com by Ken Belson (via Freakonomics)
[edited] Doug Wassil and Eric DeChent inspect the 1,600 towers that support high-voltage electrical lines in New York City, Westchester County and points farther north. They use binoculars, hoists and voltage meters to ensure that the towers’ concrete bases, steel beams, ceramic insulators and other hardware will withstand high winds, freezing cold, and heavy snow.

Consolidated Edison’s towers, some nearly 500 feet tall, carry much of the power New York City needs from upstate. If a falling tree, high wind, or ice downed a line carrying 500,000 volts of electricity, parts of the city and its suburbs could go dark.

Disaster Resistant Energy Sources
11/10/08 - ChicagoBoyz.net by Shannon Love [edited]
Advocates of alternative energy seem to work from an unconscious conception that energy is to some degree a luxury good. They believe that we can live safely, healthily, and well without it. They plan in a cavalier manner, assuming that conditions will always be ideal and predictable, and if not, well, we can do without luxuries if we have to.

Energy is the heart of our lives. Without it, most of us will die within days. Losing 50% of our energy during a northeastern blizzard would kill millions. Sustained shortages of energy would kill more slowly, but just as surely, as we reverted back to the horrific lives of our ancestors. We need to think about rare scenarios because we are so dependent on energy that it would take only one such scenario to destroy everything.

People who advocate alternative energy need to tear their eyes away from the marketing brochures and instead try think hard about how to keep an old woman in the slums of Detroit warm in the heart of a once-in-50-years blizzard. If they can’t do that, they need to shelve their plans.

Problems With Green Energy
12/26/08 - AmericanThinker by Thomas Lifson

Darn, there are always a few glitches.

[edited] Reliability and maintenance problems of green energy sources are highlighted in a strikingly honest report in today's New York Times by Kate Galbraith.
In winter, wind turbine blades ice up and may hurl chunks of ice as they rotate, biodiesel fuel congeals in the gas tanks of buses, and solar panels produce less power in the weaker sun, or no power when covered with snow.

Even in northern California, with mild winters and little snow, solar panels can generate about half as much as in the summer, depending on how much they are tilted.


Anonymous said...

Your friends story sounds similar to a James Thurber bit; something about an Aunt who thought if nothing were plugged in (or screwed in the case of a lamp socket)the electricity would somehow leak out...

M. Simon said...

The whole idea of addiction is a false one when it comes to drugs and alcohol. People take drugs because they need them.

The NIDA says addiction is a genetic disease:

Addiction Is A Genetic Disease

The war on drugs is a class war. The rich get their drugs from a doctor. The poor go to the gypsy drugstore.

Class War

Is drug use really recreational? I don't think so.

Treatment vs Recreation

What about the brain?

Round Pegs In Round Holes

What kind of people use heroin?


And how about some more brain chemistry?

PTSD and the Endocannabinoid System

BTW very nice otherwise.

In fact the real deal behind addiction is no different than the idea behind electrical power. It makes people's lives better. Except for the persecution at the hands of government.

OBloodyHell said...

> "Solar plants may cover thousands of acres.


I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, recently.

Given the solar constant of 1kW/sq.meter, it would require, with 100% perfect solar cells (far beyond current levels) that we cover something like 1.25x the area of the state of Delaware in order to produce the power needs of the USA via solar.

Yeah, that'll happen. And let's uttrly ignore all the highly toxic waste produced as a byproduct of solar cell manufacture...

As far as wind goes, well, there are not dissimilar problems just with getting the equipment:
Houston We Have a Logistics Problem
Simply summarized: wind turbines purchased today won't likely be delivered until 2011 or 2012. That's the lead time required to make 'em. If elected, Obama's going to get tossed out on his butt for totally screwing up the economy before any wind power he pushes for even gets put online.

Anonymous said...

The introduction to "Energy Matters" sounds a great deal like what one would experience in the aftermath of a massive EMP laydown. Given that our civilization is utterly dependent on the use of electricity and the increasing capabilities of hostile regimes (Iran, North Korea) to accomplish such a task should give our polititions sleepless nights.

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