Friday, March 16, 2012

Power For The People

If there was ever a time when the change should have happened, it was 1973. What change, you ask? A change in our view of foreign oil.

America backed Israel in its fight for survival amid Arab neighbors who were -- at that time -- all too glad to contemplate wiping it from the map. Our support put us at odds with those nations, who were members of the oil cartel OPEC. OPEC proceeded to squeeze oil supplies and prices, resulting in shortages, long line at filling stations, and empty gas pumps. Despite our continued output of domestic sources, our insatiable desire for oil could not be quenched at the time from our own sources alone. It had not been that way for a long time.

The crisis was a warning, which would be echoed again in 1979 when the overthrow of the Shah of Iran led to tightening oil supplies and more price spikes. As long as we were dependent on foreign oil sources for any significant fraction of our needs, the United States would be imperiled. And now, with tensions throughout the Middle East, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, inefficient and expensive tar sand oil being shoved at us, and the aftermath of a horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we still do not seem to be learning our lesson.

It's this simple: oil is finite.

It exists in only so many places on Earth, there is only so much of it, and no more is being created. Hundreds of millions of acres of deciduous forests being roamed by lumbering dinosaur behemoths are no longer being buried under volcanic ash and sediment from oceans, lakes, and rivers, compressed and boiled in the pressure cooker that is the Earth's crust. The easiest sources of oil are now long gone; we have to extend our depth and range to places foreboding and inhospitable, at the risk of further environmental damage, in order to squeeze out and sop up what precious little is left beneath our feet. We have no idea how much there is left, and what little is left is now being squabbled over constantly, as nations that covet the precious black liquid vie with other nations for the limited supply, and the nations controlling the supply are in positions to blackmail those other nations. It is a ghastly feast of carrion birds on a 50 million-plus year-old carcass, that is slowly being picked clean.

So, as you see, four dollar per gallon gas, or five, or six, or twenty... that is not the true enemy, here. No, we are hoist upon our own petard, victims of our own selfish greed. Almost 39 years have passed since we were warned in no uncertain terms that our dependence on outside sources of oil would be our undoing. We have fought wars, toppled governments, made deals, build gas-swallowing vehicles, and lived a life as if 1973 never happened. In the process, we have taken the natural climatological system of the Earth, and have begun to modify its operation, introducing back into it carbon dioxide that had managed to stay long buried as hydrocarbons deep beneath the crust.

No, high gas prices are a symptom, not a cause. We are the cause. We created this nightmare for ourselves through our shortsightedness. The worst part: it didn't have to reach this point.

Solar power technology was born in the 1950s. It came into its own in the 1960s, as a means to power spacecraft that didn't require them to carry along heavy and expensive fuels. By the 1970s, the technology was reaching commercial viability...

But we were not ready to give up on that light, sweet crude!

Imagine this: based on standard calculations, the Earth's surface receives roughly 3.2 million exajoules per year of solar radiation. Do not be frightened by the units, but suffice it to say, that number is enormous, though tiny compared to the Sun's total radiation output. For comparison, in the year 2005, our global energy consumption was a paltry 463 exajoules per year. A little math shows us that the Sun poured down on the surface of our planet approximately 6900 time the energy we consumed in one year!!!

So, just think about it for a moment, like we did not in 1973: even owing to imperfect conversion and less than 100% efficiency, if we had begun placing solar panels on every roof, of every type of building, in every corner of the country, we could have reached a state by this year, where a tiny fraction of energy would come from any fossil fuel: oil, coal, natural gas, etc. Electric cars would not be a environmentalist-inspired novelty -- they would dominate the roads! No home would have to worry about not having enough heating oil for a rough Winter, or having the gas or electric cut off because they could not pay the bill! Power outages due to storms would be severely reduced in scope. Air condition could be run at whatever temperature you wanted! The air would be cleaner!

But no.

Our nation's heritage has been littered with men and women with grand vision, showing us the way to the future, only to have the path diverted by a citizenry unwilling to deviate from the status quo. Though many may whine about the price of gas or home heating oil, though we may complain about the noise and pollution caused by internal combustion, though our heart aches at the wars we send our young people off to die in over in oil rich regions of the world, we are, in the main, unwilling to take the simplest steps to end these things. Conservatism is the cancer that eats away at our nation, convincing us the past was so grand and warning us against a future they cannot see or control. It fills our heads with a malaise, infuses our bodies with an inertia from which we cannot seem to shake ourselves. The last time we seem to have roused from our conservative torpor, we sent men to the Moon.

Then we ran out of gas.

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