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Re: The Wizard and the Prophet (Ch. 6) Fire: Energy
Charles Mann peeks into a time in the late 1800s when two forms of solar energy were briefly in competition. The contest was between the stock and flow forms of solar energy, between coal and direct use of the sun’s rays. Even against a less energy-dense fossil fuel, coal, direct solar didn’t stand a chance of winning out. This wasn’t a case of vested interests in coal suppressing a competitor: coal was simply the obvious choice for fueling industry and for heating homes. Mann makes the point that solar energy has never been attractive except when the byproducts of burning fossil fuels became seen as problems, and when experts warned that oil was running out. Although getting energy from the sun through photovoltaic panels seems a miracle today, the real miracle fuels were coal and oil. Without them, our industry-based civilization wouldn’t be possible. No other forms of energy have demonstrated the ability to keep our way of life humming, except nuclear fission, and that is now the bete noire of energy.
I have to wonder whether even the moral progress we’ve made isn’t ultimately dependent on the material progress enabled by fossil fuels.
Much of this part of Mann's narrative concerns the history of “peak oil,” a fear of running out that begins not long after the discovery of an oil field in Pithole, Pa. in 1865. Peak oil didn’t arrive in the next 150 years, so we’ll have to wait until….when? Mann concludes that there may be no end of petroleum fuels, as impossible as that may sound. Great news, right? It sure would have been 50 years ago, when no one was thinking about the warming effect of burning the remains of all those dead plants from the Carboniferous Era. For me, it was, “Aw, darn,” because my justification for switching to renewables was partly based on the certainty that we’d run out of fossils. But if we can continue to exploit them indefinitely….then what? Then, we have to fall back on the environmental reason for stopping this burning. That’s more than reason enough, but we come up against our lack of anything as good as fossil fuels for supporting our advanced lifestyle.
Absent some leap in efficiency and storage capacity, solar energy won’t do as our mainstay, is what I’d conclude from Mann’s review of the industry. We’re such a long way from running heavy industry off arrays of solar panels. Add to the insufficiency problem another that Mann discusses: solar energy-loving Prophets generally oppose installations on a scale that might make solar more feasible for a majority of our energy needs. (I can say from personal experience that such opposition isn’t confined to Prophets. In my rural, conservative area, most citizens opposed two proposed solar “farms” totaling about 900 acres.) The vision that entrances Prophets is from the era before energy utilities existed—every living unit employing its own energy technology. Today, instead of a wood-burning stove, the tech would be solar panels, geothermal, or possibly small wind turbines. Prophets might be open to neighborhood-scale utilities, but for them, big is still bad and small is beautiful.
Though prophetically inclined, I part ways with Prophets on the issue of scale. Huge wind and solar facilities need to be in our future if we have any chance of making a go of it with renewables. Dominion Energy, our regional power monopoly, proposes building a wind-energy installation off the coast of Virginia that would be the largest offshore project in the world. It’s important to note that the project isn’t necessarily opposed by environmentalists; many do think it’s needed. So we can think of Prophets as a subset of environmentalists.
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