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Thursday, 18 July, 2008

One of my favorite bloggers of all time was/is Steven den Beste, who wrote an engineering/political blog called USS Clueless until about four years ago. One day he announced that he would no longer be posting about all the stuff he normally wrote about, but would instead be writing solely about Japanese anime. And so he did.

Every once in a while, Steven will surface, post something politio-tech on his blog and then go back to anime topics. Now that the elections are coming up, he's a bit more frequent - maybe one out of ten entries will have a little taste of the old Clueless. I'm always excited when he does this, even when it's just to remind us all that NO, he is NOT going back to his old blogging style . . . but he always gives us a brief glimpse of why many people read a Japanese anime blog without any interest in anime:

My least favorite subject about which to blog, back in the day, was "alternate energy". I made a few posts about that and those are among the most-linked articles in the USS Clueless archive (for example, just today), and I get mail about those, too. The usual theme is, "Hey, did you see this? Ha! Now what do you think, eh? Ready to change your mind?" Sigh.


I don't blog about that kind of thing anymore. I never enjoyed blogging about energy, anyway, because for too many people "alternate energy" is more about religion than about physics. They believe that if we are just creative enough, we can overcome fundamental physical limitations -- and it's not that easy.

In order for "alternate energy" to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:
1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can't scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.) The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

My rule of thumb is that I'm not interested in any "alternate energy" until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I'll pay attention. Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%. Without that, it's just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

The problems facing "alternate energy" are fundamental, deep, and are show-stoppers. They are not things that will be surmounted by one lone incremental improvement in one small area, announced breathlessly by a startup which is trying to drum up funding.

Even when he's "not blogging", he's right on target. He opened up comments for a bit and it is a worthwhile read. Although I would love it if there was an eco-friendly, economically-effective alternative source of energy, there's not, so we need to focus on the remaining options and stop acting like Peter Pan - it's not going to happen just because we wish hard enough.

That said, there are some things that do seem to be worthwhile, but the upfront costs on an individual consumer basis generally put them out of reach. The Quaker school three blocks from my office is installing deep wells that will draw heated water into the buildings to heat them. They anticipate that they will pay for themselves in eight years. Which is very cool.

Note: Even if I don't read Steven's blog for the anime - although with the number of Gundam robots in our house, maybe I should - he does have some amusing anime-related posts:

I just learned a cool word: gakidomo. The dictionary says it means "those d*mn kids". (Now if only there were a single word for "get off of my lawn", we'd be set.)


Quote du jour:

A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.

Michael Pollan

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