New Kind of Energy Crisis — Indeed A new kind of ‘energy crisis’

The Globe & Mail this morning had a commentary about the new energy crisis — not a crisis of supply as back in 1973 (does anyone remember gas lineups?) but one of rapidly rising prices. So of course the comments on this article range from government conspiracy through corporate waste. And there are side mentions of the change to public transportation where it is available.

What fascinates me is that during my lifetime both business and government has been hard at work systematically dismantling public transportation networks all across North America. When I was living in Toronto the main street closest to me used to have an inter-urban train on it that ran from Toronto out to Guelph. Now you can get there by driving on the expressway — if you have a car. Toronto, like most cities, is surrounded by a wide expanse of suburbs that are almost exclusively glued together by cars. The other night there was an analyst talking about the shift to public transportation — in the US (and most likely in Canada as well) less than 5% of the population has access to public transportation.

But wait, there’s more. In eastern Ontario where we live there are the ghosts of an old agricultural past — abandoned processing plants that used to take the products of the region and brew beer or make cheese or 100’s of other items. These plants provided local employment and kept the transportation costs down on the raw materials. But as part of the great scale-up these were all closed down in favor of shipping all the materials to big plants in distant locations. And even more, buying the materials themselves from distant parts so the local agricultural producers died a slow death. The 12,000 mile salad, unfortunately, is far more the rule than the exception.

So here we are — our civilization has been restructured around long distance transportation that is no longer cheap and looks to be getting even less so. We have dismantled the widespread networks of public transportation in favor of private vehicals, then encouraged people to buy the least efficient kinds. Local agriculture, that once sustained the cities and provided for a vibrant rural life has been largely shutdown. And of course those huge processing plants were sometimes staffed with the cheapest labor available — who sometimes have issues with the government.

My question is very simple — can this clock be rolled back? Will the politicians have the vision to undo the destructive changes to transportation and re-vitalize the rail networks? Can local agriculture be rediscovered? Or will these events happen as a consequence of a general economic collapse as distance-spanning economies fail from their own costs and people are forced to find other ways? Not everyone was this stupid — look at Europa.

Coffee Pots and the Decline of the West

This morning our coffee pot packed it in. It was a Black&Decker Spacemaker under cabinet coffee pot with the thermal reservoir. We liked it, willingly put up with the drips that seem endemic to the design (and so many complained about). The thermal pot kept coffee hot for hours — a great thing on one of those damp, cold mornings we are having so many of lately. And as with all its predecessors, it just simply refused to switch on. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky — it did not catch fire like some of the units I have read about in the consumer opinion sites. It just stopped working after almost exactly two years of use — a record.

Since my faithful Mr. Coffee quit on me 10 years ago, my kitchen counter has had a succession of coffee makers that just died one after another. The average life span was 1 year — we were lucky one time and had it die just before the warranty ran out and got a new one shipped to us. But we were sans fresh coffee while the wheels of justice ground along…

It used to be that one had small kitchen appliances that just ran and ran. Eventually we grew tired of them or passed them on to the kids. They were usually stainless steel and hard bakelite — with nothing more complicated that an on-off switch. But no more — a trip to the local store will reveal a dazzling display of similar products. All plastic with the minimum amount of glass — and a host of buttons for every conceivable function — even off and on. I think they are all made is some back alley in Shanghai.

The problem with all of this is that these pots are all cheaply made and built to be thrown away. I suppose the manufacturer would be happy if we did not even bother to unwrap the thing, just take it from the store and pitch it in the trash. They certainly seem to wear well enough for that purpose. Seems a pity that the intent of the energy that was used to form the glass and plastic and make all those computer chips was really, almost intentionally, wasted. To say nothing about the plastic that was made from that same oil and will most likely not be recycled.

Makes me think that these pitiful products are a metaphor for our civilization — it all comes down to matters of form, going through the motions of being a productive society but just wasting what we do. Raw materials go in, energy is expended, people employed, distribution chains exercised and so forth — but nothing of value results. Shoddy goods that are garbage the moment they are bought are a net drain on the world — we are taking value in the form of raw materials and combining them in ways that make them useless.

It makes me wonder just how much longer our civilization is going to last, if we can no longer make goods for the population that have reasonable service lives? Have we become so obsessed with making ever cheaper goods that we have forgotten why we are making them? I would hope that it is not just to move materials from one hole in the ground to another. But somehow I fear that the concept of waste for the sake of waste has taken hold and we have lost our way.

Wind Power and Reliable Power

I am troubled by the aggressive deployment of industrial scale wind turbines around me. And after reading the numerous papers and presentations from IESO and related groups I get the feeling that the folks responsible for the integrity of our electric grid are too. But since there is a political mandate to shove this stuff out there they can only keep their heads down and manage as best they can.

I am not opposed to green energy — far from it. I am depressed that there is so little being done to encourage its deployment here, except at the industrial scale. Seems we just cannot get away from big institutions (and private profits). Guess that is what capitalism is all about anyhow. Unlike many parts of the world (and just a few miles from here across the Canada-US border) Ontario does not encourage deployment of private power solutions — quite the reverse. Not only will the increased ‘value’ of the property be taxed but distributors seem to charge a ‘stupid tax’ making the costs of equipment far higher that they are just a short distance away (the project studies in ‘HomePower’ have been most interesting). It does not take a genius to work out that the marginal cost of providing a kilowatt at point of use is much less than from a great distance away.

If I were to install a wind turbine for electric power one of the points of concern would be how to isolate the sensitive equipment in the house from the fluctuations in power output due to variations in wind. The usual approach is to buffer the output with a battery bank to smooth things out and sustain my power needs when the wind drops. The wind and our power needs are rarely matched so I would expect the batteries to get a pretty good workout.

Or I suppose I could take the industrial approach and run the turbine unbuffered and pull any mismatch from the grid. I am sure someone makes a controller that can switch fast enough for our modest needs (a few kw). The cable from the power pole is big enough (it supports all our needs now) so this would probably work.

What I am curious about is how well it will work on a province-wide scale? The power output from the wind farms is published — and one can see (as did Energy Probe) that there are times when the wind dies all across the province simultaneously. While the power contribution of unbuffered wind is small this is probably just an annoyance. But what happens when the contribution is large? I am aware that even gas turbines take time to spin up and if overstressed tend to be not too graceful. And though not a power engineer I am not unaware of the delicate balance of supply and consumption that keeps our grid from collapsing (as it did a few years ago). So what happens when a big chunk of the electrical supply just goes away abruptly? Is the dirty secret of the green power rollout that the combustion processes have to keep running quietly in the background? (So no real savings in green house gases.) Or are we just playing craps with our economy, hoping that when the wind fails there will not be much going on so no one will notice? Even more to the point, can we afford to take that risk?

Dead Ducks and Wind Turbine Noise

Interesting article in todays Globe and Mail about the birds being killed by oil sands development: Dead ducks a boon for oil-sands opponents

Reading about the frustration environmentalists have with the hazards poised by the open settling ponds and tailings brought to mind the disagreements in Ontario about wind turbines. One has the recently released MOE noise report being pushed in the press as having disproved the wind turbine opponents claims of noise harm. I skimmed the report — all 100+ pages of very scientific graphs and text. The complaint is made over and over that all one has is anecdotal reports of noise injury — that the opponents have not PROVED there is harm. And of course, anecdotal evidence is never good enough — there must be a scientific study. And yet it is ok for the proponents to wave their hands and claim that there is no harm.

Seems we all come down to the same place — an objective definition of what conditions will reliably cause harm (and even better a definition of the sensitivity gradient of normal human variability to this hazard). Then the politicians can decree by setting the limits as to what percentage of the population will be sacrificed.

At least with the birds it is pretty clear — they land in this stuff they will die. And no one knows what the birds think about this — the living ones, that is.

I am also puzzled about how standards have changed in medicine and public health. At one time I thought that it was for the proponents to prove (there is that word again) that there were no harmful side effects. (See also genetically modified foods) But now it is good enough for the folks who profit from it to claim that there is no harm — but the opponents have to scientifically prove that there is. Meanwhile the deployments continue.

No, I think we and the birds have a lot in common — we are all collateral damage in the insatiable thirst for energy that has infected our society.