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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Edelman's Moral Quandaries (Pt. 1)--Sustainable Energy

To start this off I want to link to Edelman's original post. He presented five moral challenges to humanity: sustainable energy, divorcing morality from religion, balancing personal freedom with division of wealth, drop nuclear options, and getting serious about global human rights. I've been thinking about these for a while, some more than others, and so I'm going to write a series of posts addressing the issues.
First up is sustainable energy. Edelman wrote the following:
As I’ve written before on my post about Global Warming Skepticism, I don’t particularly care about the Earth, except inasmuch as we can’t live without it. Right now, letting the Earth die means letting us die. So it’s imperative for the species’ survival that we either a) learn to conserve the planet’s natural resources, b) figure out how to keep the species going using renewable resources, or c) invest heavily in survivalism science that will let us live without them. (Or, more likely, a combination of a, b, and c.) Personally, I’d be happy living in a funky sci-fi dome city, but making something like that sustainable is much harder than it looks. Ergo: investing heavily in alternative energy is a moral imperative.

    Now, the issue here isn't whether global warming is real, but that we're going to eventually run out of burnable fuel sources like oil, coal, etc. I think no matter how we look at it, option 'a' isn't viable. We will run out of oil. We can't expect to conserve it when the world is eating it up as fast as it is. How do you conserve a non-renewable fuel source? So our options are pretty much 'b' and 'c'.
    So what are our options for 'b'? Well, renewable implies that we don't really have to think about it. It's a source that will be there even if we blow ourselves up. The sun and wind are two constants that we know we can use.
I mentioned a link to the maglev wind turbine, which has the potential to really improve our energy efficiency. A couple hundred of them taking the space of the big windmill types in the California hills could easily power the entire state and a couple of other states too. The only problem with wind is that it is a source that isn't 100% reliable. The wind is a constant. It will always exist, but it doesn't blow the same every day, and sometimes it doesn't blow at all. The only thing we can rely on is that it 'will' blow at some point. However, from what I understand the maglev turbine isn't exceedingly expensive and if we build them all over the country in places where we already have the big windmills, we are looking at a lot of energy.
Perhaps an option with such turbines is to build extras and use large generator facilities, namely the facilities we already have in place for our current power sources, to build up surplus energy supplies that can be used when wind power isn't giving us what we need.
    Solar energy, however, is a super constant. The sun doesn't stop shining. The only thing that keeps us from getting the most from it are the clouds and night. But the great thing about solar energy is that we don't need to have ground based solar facilities. In the future we could have large space-based facilities and use technology we already have to beam energy down. Yes, we can actually beam electricity (as a laser or as microwaves). It's been done and in a decade such technology could be perfected. But again, we can use generators to store excess energy produced by ground based facilities. There are already plans being proposed to build solar facilities in California and other states, and I linked in a previous post to a plan in North Africa. A facility covering one square mile could power the entire U.S., at least for electric needs.
    But solar doesn't end there. The solutions for solar are nearly endless. Remember, the only time that solar energy doesn't work is when it's dark. You can still get energy in an overcast sky, just not as much. Look at the average scientific calculator, almost all of which use a small solar strip, and you'll be able to see how effective solar energy is, even when the day isn't bright and sunny. The greatest solution to energy needs is to remove all business policies that don't allow people to put solar panels on their houses. Anyone who lives in California will no doubt be aware how difficult it is just to put panels on your home. You can't just put them up and plug in. You have to pay the power company off first, since they'll likely lose you as a customer. If we get rid of these sorts of policies and make it easier for people to put panels on their houses we're looking at energy independence. Building facilities in various locations would also do wonders. Household solar panels are actually a lot cheaper than they used to be. We can now produce them for around 30 cents USD per watt.
    A good solution, then is to combine both. If we were to place maglev turbines and power facilities across the country in places where we already have alternate energy sources in effect and also make it easier for people to put panels on their homes, then we can expect to see our energy problems going away. We won't need nuclear facilities anymore and we won't need any other facilities that have the potential to damage the environment (though nuclear facilities do have some environmental benefits). Add in large generator facilities in places where old power facilities existed and we'll have loads of surplus energy that could, in theory, be sold to other countries or simply saved in case of an emergency. (Other methods for energy are using cold air currents and even energy produced by the ocean currents)
Fuel for cars is the next issue. Solar powered cars probably aren't feasible as a standard model, not unless we figure out a way to accelerate the production of energy from the sun. Given what we will have in the next few years we'll assume that solar energy won't work for cars. That means we need something else that is not only easy to produce, given time for the technology to be perfected, and relatively cost effective. It also has to be renewable. We have two logical options: hydrogen fuel cells and electricity.
    Hydrogen fuel cells aren't quite there yet. There is a lot of concern with stability. We're talking about cars that are using hydrogen as a reactant, just like gasoline. If you throw a flame on a pool of gasoline you'll have a big fire. Well, if you screw up on a hydrogen cell you'll have big problems too (probably a significant explosion). Will hydrogen cells be feasible in the near future? I would hazard to say an almost definite yes. We will have hydrogen fuel cells and I imagine with the right funding this could be achieved in five years if not sooner. I say five years because we need a market applicable product--i.e. a product that the average folk can actually buy. If hydrogen cells cost $2,000 per car we can expect to see that technology flounder. I don't think this will be a major concern in the relatively near future.
    Electric cars, however, ARE a reality. We have the technology to build functional, market applicable, useful electric cars. Given some more time we might even have the ability to make electric cars with some power to them. Battery power is the biggest concern. Such technology might require that we convert gas facilities, which will become obsolete, into new 'power stations' where you can plug in and recharge. Recharge times might be a bit much at first, but we are getting faster chargers now that it might not be such an issue anymore. We might also consider making electric cars solar so that they charge themselves when you're not plugged in and charge a little when you're driving. The battery is the biggest concern. Our best bet, though, is hydrogen fuel cells, and the sooner we get them the better.
    Now, what do we do about 'c'? Well survivalist strategies might be a good idea, but they are defeatist ideas. If the Earth is dead, we're screwed anyway. The only thing we should be concerned about if the Earth dies is how to get it back to where it was. Edelman proposes using little scifi domes as living facilities, which certainly sound great and lovely, but he is right that they would be very difficult to maintain. Our options are to make 'b' work as best as possible. That's it. We don't have the option of making domes or underground structures. Sadly, such facilities would fall apart. Humans are smart, but we're flawed, and domes would leave little room for redundant structures because of the cost to build and maintain them. Without redundant structures you can expect disaster to hit in the future.
    The result is that we absolutely, 100% need alternate fuel sources that don't require us to drill oil or other things. We can't expect to live on oil forever and it is idiotic of us to want to open up Alaska to drilling when we all know that sooner or later it's going to run out and we're going to need different sources. The problem with oil companies is that they charge outrageous prices, yet make massive profits and use very little of that money to help develop new sources of fuel, which would be beneficial for them as they must undoubtedly be aware of their future demise. Oil companies desperately need to change. They're survival depends on it. It worries me that oil companies are not pushing to have any control on emerging fuel technologies. One can rake in record profits and still get a handle on new business ventures. The wave of the future is alternative fuel--solar, wind, hydrogen, etc. Get with the program. Edelman is right. It is a moral imperative that we invest in alternative fuel sources now, and heavily. We'll be left behind in the dust if we don't, and I don't really like dust. I have allergies.

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  1. Actually, I did my final report in my Biology class about Hydrogen cars. There have been cars built with hydorgen fuel cells, but as of right now they'd be way to high for the general public.

    In fact, BMW claims they are going to put out hydrogen capable cars by 2008. I don't know if that means totally Hydrogen capable or not, but the idea is interesting nonetheless.

    here's the link to the article:

  2. Oh, could you send me your report? I'd love to read it if you wouldn't mind. Thanks so much for the link. This is really good news, especially if they go through with it. This is exactly what we need, a slow turn over that slowly pushes people off gasoline and oil to different sources. We can't expect to just convert in a year (too expensive), but in 5 years or 10 years, yes, we could curb dependence on oil! Thanks! And send me that report :P

  3. I'll try to find it, and send it on.

  4. I really appreciate it!

    I also just learned of a different form of transportation via The Thinking Blog which uses compressed air. Apparently you can get about 70 MPH in the thing, for about 40-50 miles. While that's not ideal, with the car costing about 7,000 USD and it costing 1 USD to fill it up, that's not bad. Plus, absolutely no emissions at all. So, it could be a good 'quick drive' unit for things like going to the store real quick to get milk or something like that.