As the Oil Spreads


As the oil spreads through the Gulf of Mexico, Obama tells us that we must focus on clean energy and get off the fossil fuel diet. Such is apparently a result of political pressure – as the spill was beginning, he was advocating drilling along all our coasts. We seem to be wandering around in a carnival of fools, attempting to find our way to something solid and failing time and time again. As I hope to enlighten you, clean energy technologies as Obama and probably most of the rest of us are thinking about are just other such hawkers’ distractions. Understand, I’ve been fed so much bullshit while working in the industrial and academic worlds that almost all the stuff “they” are pushing must be held up to a bright light and turned every which way before I will consider it. Warning: I shall use our pet “clean” energy technology solar power, specifically solar cells, as a metaphor for the hidden difficulties with “clean” energy technologies in general. I realize an earlier reference I made to this caused some consternation, so I’ll be more explicit this time.

The prototypical final solar cell manufacturing process is an assembly line that uses quite a lot of electricity. Still, it is possible to imagine this all originates from solar cells that have been produced earlier, so the entire line is solar powered – but, probably not. If so, however, the last step in the manufacturing process of the solar cells would indeed be energetically free of fossil fuel expense. Thus, the energy they would eventually generate would seemingly be clean. Aw, but the assembly line doesn’t stand alone. Behind the scene is a warehouse in which raw materials, packaging, and components manufactured elsewhere are received and inventoried. As the cells exit the assembly line, they are forwarded to another warehouse where they are temporarily stored and prepared for shipment. But, wait, these warehouses require energy to operate as well, which must be added to each cell’s energy production budget.

Those items received at the first warehouse likely have been produced elsewhere, perhaps even mined and refined. The crates sent from the second travel via various transport pathways perhaps to a series of other somewhat automated warehouses until they are finally delivered to retailers and sold. These stages in each cell’s lifetime before it is purchased by the final user all require energy that must be included in the budget, because without those expenditures the cell couldn’t exist. Much of this is derived from fossil fuels. That is only a start.

Equipment breaks down and must be maintained. So, surely, we must include these maintenance energy costs in the budget. Similarly, new equipment is regularly purchased after being manufactured in factories much like the solar cell one. Since the Sun doesn’t always shine and certainly doesn’t at night, batteries are required. The manufacturing and warehouse facilities associated with each of these must also be maintained. Without these items, the cell couldn’t be manufactured, so again the energy costs associated with each must be included. Whether or not the cell will produce sufficient energy to offset these costs is questionable, but there are killer entries in the accounts that haven’t been mentioned.

Surely, much of the equipment indicated above is automated. Still, none of these processes, including those feeding into and flowing out of the solar cell factory, will run without the oversight, skills, and labor of humans, specifically of human energy. Surely, the energy a person spends while on a job anywhere in the above network, from manufacturing, to warehousing, to maintenance, to transport, to administration, and to marketing and sales, must be included. Indeed, the factory likely couldn’t even exist without an enveloping government, for instance without highways, so those so employed surely should be included.

Each of these persons couldn’t be on the job if they were not otherwise fed, clothed, housed, provided with medical care, and trained, so a fraction of these supporting energy costs must be included in each cell’s budget – even that of field workers. An employee’s commute costs, including that of the original manufacture, maintenance, and fueling of his vehicle should surely be included. The tools they use on the job, such as all those computers and other equipment that tie the internet together, must be as well. The list goes on and on almost ad infinitum – every process somehow is dependent upon a multitude of others. Most of these costs originate directly from fossil fuels or by way of electricity generation. If it weren’t already so, those who study energy accounting have found that these human overhead costs invariably drive energy budgets far negative, not just for solar cells but every proposed “clean” energy technology. This includes nuclear power, one of Obama’s favorites and that of many others.

The bottom line is that every such energy technology proposed is dirty. In fact, it is worse than if the fossil fuels had been used directly, because every conversion from one form of energy to another, according the second law of thermodynamics, is inefficient; a certain percentage is invariably lost to heat. For instance, it costs more fossil fuel energy than is captured in the electricity produced by a generator. Thus, without counting the human overhead incurred, the electricity so generated is ultimately environmentally dirtier than if the fossil fuel had been used directly. The energy costs incurred by the construction and maintenance of distribution lines also include that of workers and fossil fueled vehicles; also, the lines lose a fraction of the power carried depending upon distance. We love the convenience of electricity, but we must be aware it comes at high fossil fuel-derived energy and, thus, environmental costs. Thus, I conclude as others have that electric cars are environmentally dirtier than gasoline fueled ones when energy budgets are considered.

OK, I’ve slaughtered a lot of sacred cows here, some that are dear to the hearts of Mendocino County residents. I ask for forgiveness, but this won’t restrain me. I’ve always had a problem with sacred cows wandering around untended, leaving dirty hoof prints, muddying streams, and shitting here and there and everywhere. Far too many times I’ve found my feet mired, because I was distracted by the usual marketing hyperbole – after all, everyone knows that Coke is the Real Thing. What, then, should we do? I offer several points for your consideration:

We here in America rely almost entirely on fossil fuels in the production of our supposed needs. Every time we turn on an electrical device or use a fossil fuel, I propose we think of the oil spreading across the Gulf and that we be cognizant that we are to an extent personally responsible for the exhaust of fossil carbon dioxide and, thus, for global warming as well as all the other environmental devastations associated with fossil fuels. We’ve now infected most of the rest of the world with this cultural disease. Our addiction appears to be getting exponentially worse while economic fossil fuel sources are dwindling. The big questions are, can we, shall we, should we escape? Prior to about the middle of the seventeenth century when intensive coal production and utilization began, most didn’t live so much worse than we do now and were likely happier – surveys have found that peoples around the world who have less are so. There are indications those earlier peoples may have been healthier as well. Escape appears not only possible, our options may well be preferable vis-à-vis personal and societal well-being to our present lifestyles. But, are we running out of time?

Consider three scenarios. In the first, a person is cooking over a wood fired cast iron stove such as my mother once had; the wood had been harvested nearby using saws, axes, and splitting mauls. The stove in the second is fueled by propane that has been delivered to a tank just outside. For the third, the stove is electrically fueled by power originating from solar cells on the roof above. While it wasn’t entirely true in my Mom’s case, my earlier pioneer ancestors’ food, clothing, and shoes would have been produced nearby from farm-raised raw materials, the cast iron in the stove, pans, and farm tools would have been cast by a local blacksmith using charcoal originating from local trees as did the wood from which the house was constructed; the iron ore would also have been smelted using charcoal; that is, in this first scenario, recent sunlight would have been the source of all the energy being utilized, including that of the humans involved. The propane in the second case would have been refined from natural gas that had been pumped out of the ground and piped or otherwise transported to a refinery after which it would be distributed; fossil fuels would certainly be used for some stages of transport and in supporting worker labor, but relatively few workers with relatively few skills would be necessary – the equipment involved can’t be described as high tech. In contrast, as described above, when it is pealed back, the technologies and human overhead involved in the last are mind numbing. Do you think the resulting food would taste any different? Oh, but, with the third we would have electricity so that we could watch our large screen televisions, play with our computers, games, and other electronic toys, and roam around the internet – need I say, all at immense fossil fuel cost.

It is said that we, or an increasing percentage of us, are becoming more enlightened, more aware, that we are so evolving toward a new more conscious Earth. The huge obstacle we are confronting on our way is that we are so embedded in this fossil fuel-saturated culture; it is intertwined into our brains beginning shortly after birth and is reflected in our every rambling thought, our presumptions, our beliefs, and our habits. Even noted gurus often appear to have feet of clay in this regard. Whether or not we are able to cut through this will require lots of no-holds-barred questioning, of quiet watching and listening, of dropping presumptions, and of simplifying our lives to human size.

I conclude the human species has a central purpose for being here, specifically to interact spirit-to-spirit with and learn from nature. As a result of anthropologist investigations of pre-civilized societies, it appears we humans once knew this, but civilization’s increasing complexities confuse us and fill our minds with so much noise that we forget and are left struggling in insecurity and fear. Jesus said we each must become as a little child, presumably as we were before we were infected. Can we awake, remember who we are, and retune our lives in time to avoid the destruction of the human species and the Earth? I only don’t know. ~~