Monday, March 21, 2011

No Free Lunch. Reflections on Electricity.

Do we even know how spoilt we are? Each of us in the so-called developed world routinely uses the equivalent of Earth knows how much people-power to make life easy, without having to pay a single servant.

We are perhaps a bit more aware than most, since we played the pretend-pioneer game in our tipi and log cabin years. The first year we had electricity in the log house it felt like magic.  I appreciated it most coming home in the dark late winter afternoon from the weekly trip to Hot Springs and Town, loaded with groceries, library books, wet swim stuff and hungry children, one of them on the verge of hypoglycemic meltdown. Pre-hydro we'd have to juggle the above while fumbling to light first one kerosene or Coleman lamp and then more, creating small pools of weak light. Now we could flick a switch by the door, and There Was Light in the entire cabin! Wonderful.

From painless dentistry to our beloved internet, I love the modern society made possible by electricity and have no desire to return to an Amish-like existence. Agriculture needs to adopt some Amish wisdom, but that is another topic.

But power is not free.

We all know that the last of the ancient sunlight AKA fossil fuel comes at a price. It appears we get to choose between a political price, see the Middle East, or an environmental one, see Tar Sands or Gulf. The cheap easy oil is mostly GONE.
Natural Gas may sound good, but Google 'fracking' and see what that does to the underground water supply. Water is  the most precious resource of all. Water is the substance future wars will be fought about.

Coal. Plentiful in some parts of the world, and better methods are being found to burn it more cleanly. But the mining creates enormous havoc. Mountain Top Removal anyone?
Wind Power is clean and renewable, but we'd need enormous numbers of turbines. Turbines kill birds, alter the esthetics of the landscape, and not everyone wants to live next door to them. Youtube has some horror clips of noisy towers. It also has reassuring clips of quiet mills, so I just don't know.

Solar? Nice, but how much will it take to replace existing fossil fuel based plants?

Biomass? We need crop lands to grow food, not fuel. Hemp on marginal lands might be a contribution.


Nakusp is the heart of a valley that was devastated by a series of dams. If you had been living here in the fifties and heard the first rumors about the Columbia River Treaty your reaction would likely have been: "No way. They can't be serious." There were homesteads and villages all up and now the valley. British Columbia may be huge, but much of it is either too mountainous or too far North to be productive food growing land. The river bottom lands of the Arrow Valley had both good soil and a decent climate.
'They' were serious, many lives were uprooted, precious farmland was lost, and now 'they' are poised to do the same thing to a rare valley just South-West of Prince George. Somehow the notion that areable land in a suitable micro-climate is more precious than hydro-electric power has not sunk in yet. If you think peak oil is scary, wait till you look at peak Soil.
Above: mud flats on the Columbia in early spring. A reservoir is not the same as a living, flowing river.

Finally, just when you start to think that nuclear might not be such a bad idea after all, along comes Fukushima.

It reminds me a bit of Dorothy Parker's poem on suicide methods.
Razors pain you,
Rivers are damp,
Acids stain you,
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful,
Nooses give,
Gas smells awful.
You might as well live.

Actually I am not sure what the conclusion is when it comes to power.  I am just making the point that every method of generating it has a price, and we need to do some serious thinking about how we are going to keep the lights on. People are nicer when the lights are on. People who spend too much time in the dark get scared, and scared people do weird things like burning witches.

Here are a few considerations:

Conservation is a no-brainer, but whatever thrifty habits we adopt will be offset by the rest of the world turning on their own lights, computers, washing machines etc.

Good design, including building methods from before the Industrial Revolution, goes hand in hand with conservation.

Removing subsidies from the old fossil fuel model would really help. Clean and renewable energies stand a better chance of competing when the environmental cost of the dirty ones are taken into account, literally.

Let's not necessarily rule out nuclear power. puts some perspective into the danger of radiation.

But for goodness sakes don't build the things on earthquake spots, remove any profit motive that might induce builders to skimp on safety, and make them smaller.

That last goes for all power generation. Make plants smaller, more local, and plan for failures.

Fail-safe is NOT an option. Sh#t will happen, in ways we have not thought of yet.  We can reduce the odds, but we can never be completely sure. A decentralized grid with smaller plants  means smaller catastrophes if something goes wrong.

Carry on researching, and last but not least: how about utilizing the energy that is expended in gyms across the world every day? I have a friend who lives off-grid.
If her teen son wants to play a video game he has to power the generator by pedaling the bike for an hour. He knows there is no free lunch.

P.S. I just discovered this great online B.C. newspaper, with a series on energy by Andrew Nikiforuk, on the same wave length.

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