Friday, January 23, 2015

The Great Squirrel Cage Challenge of 2015: HYDROPOWER!

It has been suggested that all of the ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ alternatives to fossil fuels are so much magic pixie dust, that they are absurd and not practical.  One joking proposal was to generate electricity with enormous numbers of squirrels running in cages hooked up to generators.  The reason that this is ridiculous is obvious: you could not get more energy out of this setup than is present in the grains you feed the squirrels, but a lot of the energy that a squirrel consumes goes to growth and staying warm etc., plus they don’t run all the time, and the cost of manufacturing and maintaining billions of squirrel cages would be enormous.  Much more efficient to just burn the grain and use it to power a steam generator.

However, many of the so-called alternative energy sources are just as unworkable.  Such as ocean thermal energy conversion, or biodiesel.  Or growing corn with intensive chemical fertilizers and then using more fossil fuels to refine the corn into ethanol and then burning it… Thus, there is a contest to “come up with the most absurd new energy technology you can think of, and write either the giddily dishonest corporate press release or the absurdly sycophantic media article announcing it to the world.”

So here is my answer to the challenge: hydropower!  Clean, efficient, reliable, quiet, hydropower.  You know, where you have big dams and the water flowing through them generates electrical power.  Granted there is a little local ecological impact of a big dam, and in the long run there can be issues with reservoirs silting up, but really, hydropower is an almost perfect renewable green power source.  It also has the added advantage that, over the long run, the energy that you get out of a big dam is many, many times what you put into it.

Now you may say, but wait!  Sure hydropower is a good energy source, but it currently only produces about 16% of the world’s electricity, and most of the good sites are already developed.  So there just aren’t enough appropriate rivers and mountain passes left.

That is correct – but only because the rich have conspired to jam seven billion people into the world (yes really it was deliberate, but there isn’t space to go over that here.  Check out previous blogs on this site for further information).  If the population were only a billion then clean renewable hydropower could fulfill all of our electricity needs very nicely.

But, you may say, even if it is the fault of the rich, what is done is done and there ARE seven billion people in the world.  Are you proposing to kill six out of seven people?  No of course not.  I’m just pointing out that our problem with long-term energy needs is not technological at all, it is demographic and political.  The only reason that we are on the verge of running out of cheap fossil fuels and maybe having a greenhouse effect is because of recent forced massive population growth.  With a population stable at a billion (or even two or three) none of these issues would be a problem.

If you have dug yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is be honest about how you got there.  And then to stop digging.

Now if the population was stabilized, you get a bonus effect.  That’s because we use energy not just to operate machinery, but to constructing it in the first place.  An automobile typically uses as much energy to build as it consumes over its operating lifetime.  So with a stable population, we would save all the energy used to build new roads and factories etc., and we would only need to pay for operations and maintenance.  It’s like when someone pays off the mortgage on a house – you can suddenly live on half of the income that you needed before.  So with a stable population, we could probably get most of our electricity from hydropower with a population of two billion, about what it was in 1940.

I know, I'm just talking about the generation of electricity and ignoring the use of hydrocarbons for vehicle fuel and chemical production.  But you get the idea.  We don't need perfect 'sustainability' right now - we just need to have some slack.  With a modest and stable population we could fill the gaps by burning coal for over thousand years: yes coal is polluting, but if there were just a handful of generating plants it wouldn't be a global problem, and it would give us plenty of time to think of something better.

A moderately sized and stable population gives us lots of time and lots of wiggle room, and every advance is pure profit.  A large and rapidly growing population puts on us a treadmill that gets faster and faster and steeper and steeper, and we need to come up with a new radical breakthrough on an increasingly accelerated schedule just to stay even.

Even with a stable population of three billion – about what it was in 1960 – we could get most of our electricity from hydropower, and we could fill the gap with only modest consumption of fossil fuels.  We would have many centuries to develop new technologies, or refine existing ones. 

That’s the other bonus to a stable population: time.  It’s very hard to make devices more efficient.  If you want to double the world’s population in a century, the notion that you can do this via increases in efficiency is absurd.  An isolated process can be made more efficient in a laboratory setting at great expense: making all industrial processes 50% efficient in a short period of time with the working capital available to us now is just not going to happen.  But with a stable population, if over a century we made everything 10% more efficient, well, everyone would have 10% more. 

So right now we have not one, or two, or three, but seven billion people.  Our choices are very much more constrained.  But if we are to have any chance of preventing the world from sliding back into a new dark age, we need to recognize that population growth is the main problem, and that it is the insatiable desire of the rich for cheap labor that drives population growth.  If we stopped forcing populations higher now, we would at least have a chance.  At least any progress we made would not be immediately wiped out by adding more and more people.

Remember: we don’t need governments to institute policies limiting family size.  We need governments to stop instituting policies aimed at maximizing population growth.  Governments should stop hiding the effects of rapid population growth, so that people can make informed decisions.  They should stop giving medals to women with large families and banning contraceptives (I’m thinking of you, Turkey and Iran).  And they should stop replacing populations with low fertility rates, with populations with high fertility rates (immigration does maximize population growth.  A world without borders will soon have its population set by Bangladesh.  And when people are forced to live within their means, they do).

Now you may say, but what’s ridiculous about this solution?  Answer: nothing!  It’s the only sane approach to the issue.  What is ridiculous is that this cannot be talked about!  In every aspect of economics we see the power of demographics – and all mention of it must be censored.  The population is doubled, water runs short even though rainfall is within historical limits – it must be global warming!  There are more people traveling on about the same number of highway lane miles and traffic gets worse – and it’s because building roads increases traffic congestion!  The per-capita energy consumption in the United States is down significantly from its peak in 1970, but total energy consumption is up because of population increases – and the problem is that people are making more intensive use of more efficient machines (think about this: it’s an absurd statement).

Thus I humbly submit to the squirrel cage challenge the one sane proposal.  It will doubtless be declared ridiculous, if not slandered as racist.  Because that is the current state of public discussion.

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