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April 2009 News

31 Mar

The financial and economic crisis of 2009 may be a catalyst for major advances in energy technology and for general infrastructure improvement. One can only hope that the money that is about to be spent is invested wisely in domestic energy resources and infrastructure so that it not only mitigates the economic crises but also brings returns in the form of domestic energy production and increased infrastructure efficiency that will in the near future help stem the rising tide of the national deficit. Even if the U.S. is still considered the safest haven for surplus money in the world, that situation cannot be taken for granted for ever. Those who see their investments in U.S. treasuries devalued are twisting their brains about how they can get out of this situation. The ultimate crisis would be a run on the dollar (Businessweek, 3/308, p. 28) in which major foreign investors dump their dollar holdings, which could herald in hyperinflation. The American people and we all who depend on dollars would suffer financial disaster.

The economic crisis right now has once again demonstrated ad occulos that we, including the so-called experts, don’t seem to have a clue what triggers economic collapses as the one we are in right now. When Lester Thurow in his book The Future of Capitalism mentions the possible scenario of a run on the dollar in 1996 (p. 230), he had no clue about the way our present economic collapse (go to www.technicalsociety.net) was triggered and spread like brush fire to all sectors of the economy. The economy in its bubble phase seems to be a highly unstable structure, in which even a minor failure in one part can trigger a progressive collapse of the whole structure.

So what can we do to climb out of the hole into which we were swept? Where can we as individuals make a contribution? One such area is green energy. Unlike highways, bridges, bullet trains, nuclear plants, etc., this is an area we can get personally involved in.

We in Tennessee are momentarily in the unusual situation where local (mayor), state (governor) and federal government (ORNL) stretch out a helping hand to make it happen. We should be aware that so far Tennessee has not been a good steward of energy resources. Despite of its advantage of being served by a non-profit power agency, the population and the state’s administration, and the politicians have allowed things to drift. One Tennessee politician once told me: “I am not a leader, I am a representative.” That sunk in. Among the nation’s states, many of them less advantaged than Tennessee, Tennessee ranks 17th from the top in energy use and 37th in the cost of energy. Presently, residential energy cost stands at around 9.5 cents per kWh. This is a considerable increase over what it was just a few years ago, but it is still a good deal, less than many consumers pay in other areas that are served by private power. Unfortunately it does not pay the real cost of the energy produced. The Tennessee per capita energy consumption exceeds that of 33 other states. In the U.S., in September 2008, 64% of power generation was fueled by coal, 30 % by nuclear, and 5.3 % by hydro. With 61 million metric tons of CO2 emissions Tennessee ranks 14th from the top in the US. ip address . North Carolina claims that Tennessee sends pollution over there from steam plants that have never been equipped with sulfur dioxide scrubbers. As people throw trash out of their car windows into my front yard, so their industry sends pollution across state lines.

Obviously, Tennessee has to do something to improve its image as a polluter and consumer of scarce resources. All the scientific and technological advantages that have been bestowed upon the state over the past 70 years seemingly had little effect on the environmental and social conscience of the population at large.

Hopefully, things are about to change. On March 2, the Technical Society had Dr. Timothy Valentine, Director of Strategic Planning and Communications, ORNL, as guest speaker who addressed the energy challenge and how Tennessee might help. He gave a very lucid talk from which the numbers used here were taken. The City of Knoxville has a Solar America Cities Program of which we will hear from Madeline Weil on May 4.

The problem is not just that we seem to be hopelessly hooked, like addicts, to unfit energy sources, like coal, oil and nuclear. It is compounded by the projection of increasing energy needs and consumption. A 50 percent increase in world-wide energy consumption is predicted between 2005 and 2030 from 487 x 10^12 MJ to 733 x 10^12 MJ. MJ (megajoules) rare also MWs (megawattseconds); so if one divides the MJ by 3600 one gets the more familiar MWh, and if one divides the MWs by the production time one gets the needed capacity in MW. For example, assuming this energy is produced by systems running around the clock, or 31.5 x 10^6 s of the year, an added capacity of 8 x 10^6 MW would be required world-wide by 2030. If the systems run less than full time, then even more capacity is needed. For comparison, TVA’s capacity is about 30 x 10^3 MW. This would mean that some 270 power systems of the size of TVA would have to come on line between now and 2030 world-wide. If the expected additional capacity of 8 x 10^6 MW (a minimum) is to be met by windmills, it would require 1.6 million at 5 MW of them and if they only run 50 % of the time, over 3 million would be needed. Windmills placed in off-shore environments that benefit from on-shore wind during the day and off-shore winds at night, could make a major contribution to a reliable demand, but it takes millions of them. That sounds like the prediction of the millions of horses that were expected to be needed in New York, if development were to continue at the pace of the late 19th century. The sky scrapers would by now be buried in horse apples up to their penthouses. It didn’t happen thanks to a break-through in technology in the form of a self-propelling cart, the automobile. The important message is that instead of thinking conventionally, the situation calls for a major break-through.

The present U.S. energy mix is 40 % crude oil, 23 % coal, 22 % natural gas, 8 % nuclear, and 7 % renewables. If oil, coal and natural gas (all CO2 producers and other trouble makers) have to be drastically reduced, say to 10 % or less each, with coal going back to underground mining, then nuclear would have to be increased to 60 % and renewables to 10 % and more. An accelerated research program would have to be devoted to cope with nuclear waste. In addition, hydro-pumped storage in conjunction with a smart net would take care of the unreliability aspect and provide the storage capacity to help stabilize green power. Something like that would get us through the near future until some real novel approach comes along. For the foreseeable future we have to continue to cook with water, but at least on a somewhat more benign fire. webhosting data . WOW.

 
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