–More today from Jeff Vail and his theories of power, which we quoted from last week, “Electricity, when honestly examined, provides an extremely inefficient solution to our energy needs. The ease with which the economy can centralize and production and distribution of electricity, however, makes it the method of choice. Consider the inefficiencies: solar energy converts to one of a variety of fossil fuels (coal, oil, timber, etc.) over time. Energy corporations then expend enormous resources to gather that fuel from naturally dispersed positions to a centralized location.”
–Good points. Electricity generated from fossil fuels is only about 30% efficient. The thermal efficiency is lost in combusting the fuel either power a turbine (as with natural gas), or creating steam to power a turbine. Now think of it this way, imagine going to the grocery store and filling up your cart with a week’s worth of food. You go through the checkout line, put your groceries in the car, store them in your refrigerator, take them out, prepare them, put them on a plate at your dinner table, and then use a fork to shove them in your mouth.
—If this process was as inefficient as electricity generation is, you’d have lost 70% of the caloric value of the food you bought. There’s no other way to describe that but remarkably inefficient. Vail elaborates on our use of electricity, “Then, using incredibly inefficient processes which create toxic wastes, they combust the fuel and convert the resulting heat into electricity. Using expensive transmission lines they distribute the electricity, with a great loss in the process. Finally, consumers convert the electricity back into heat (in most cases) using again, incredibly inefficient processes. This represents a staggering combined inefficiency, but does permit centralized control of electricity, as well as the (non-electrical) power associated with it.”
–Here’s another question for you reader, a few of them. Are we doing things this way because it’s the best way to get the most power to the most people at the cheapest price? Are we doing it this way because that’s just the way we know how to do it? Is there even another way to do it? Is there a way that’s staggeringly more energy efficient and requires less centralization and all the liabilities and vulnerabilities that entails?
–Vail isn’t sure. But he does say that once you give up on the need for centralizing the energy problem, solutions begin to emerge. “If we reject the need to centralize this process, we can quite easily harness all the energy that we need on our own. Passive solar heating and cooling design converts sunlight directly into heat, without any of the compounded inefficiencies described above. Designers around the world have demonstrated the viability of passive solar to provide for all heating, cooling, and cooking needs using nothing more than locally available materials.”
–Sounds great to us. Local, solar, and efficient is a good combination. But so far, current efforts to localize power still run on a feedstock that’s centrally produced and distributed. We’re thinking specifically of our favourite Australian company doing business in Europe. It makes local electric power generation available, right down in your basement. But the power unit runs on a natural gas, a fossil fuel that’s distributed and transported through a massively centralized network.
–It’s an improvement in efficiency. But it doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem of cost that centralization brings about. To do that, you need a fuel source that’s widely available everywhere at minimal cost, and that can be stored and distributed to provide the base load electricity needs of modern society.
–Let’s think. About the only fuel source that’s widely available everywhere is the sun. But the sun doesn’t always shine (especially in places like, say London.) And we haven’t quite figured out yet how to store the power of the sun and distribute it cleanly and efficiently. We’re working on it….