“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

the age of auto/erotic fatality

... This is one of those modern instances, beloved by magazine writers. When the first study came out in 1985 that showed that there was a growing ozone hole over the Antarctic, Nasa went over its data from 74 onwards from its Nimbus 7 satellite. The satellite had never showed an ozone hole. They discovered the reason for that. The Nimbus 7’s computer was a smart computer, and it was programmed to reject certain data as evidence of faulty instruments. Among the data rejected was that showing excessively low levels of ozone.

Which brings LI to George Monbiot’s interesting column in the Guardian comments are free blog. Monbiot writes that he has become a convert to the hydrogen power cell idea – which has appealed to LI’s Popular Science side since forever. He outlines the problems with the natural gas supply – especially the stranglehold it potentially gives to Russia – and the probable solution of the Blair government – nuclear power – and the increasing energy use per household in the U.K., and the certainty that CO2 buildup has to be stopped now.

And he writes:“I've looked into every source of sustainable heat I can find, and while there are plenty that could supply some of our houses - wood and straw, solar hot-water panels, district heating systems and heat pumps for example - all of them are constrained by one factor or another, such as a shortage of agricultural land, our feeble sun and the disruption involved in fitting them to existing homes. It seems that there is only one low-carbon source of heat that could (with a massive investment in new infrastructure) be supplied to most of the homes in the UK between now and 2030. It is hydrogen. Hydrogen can be used to power a fuel cell, which is a kind of gas battery. If, as their promoters predict, fuel cells can very soon be made small enough, cheap enough and reliable enough to take the place of domestic boilers, they could provide the heat and electricity our homes require. The natural gas pipes to which most of our houses are attached would be replaced by hydrogen pipes. These are about 50% wider but otherwise the system is much the same.”

The response to Monbiot’s post is overwhelmingly negative: the oil peakers poo poo natural gas; the solar energy people are outraged by the feeble sun remark; and the enviro crowd blames consumerism.

Now, I have some empathy with all of those complaints (except peak oil, which has the smell of a cult), yet the odd thing is, Monbiot is obviously not saying, drop solar energy, or drop conservation. He is saying that an intermediate step in the lowering of CO2 levels is hydrogen power. That he thinks the cost of obtaining hydrogen from natural gas, which is much lower than that of obtaining hydrogen using electrolysis through water, means that the former is to be preferred doesn’t necessary strike me as true. I imagine the state will have to massively subsidize any turnover to a new energy source. And the cult like part of my soul thinks, goddamn it, those Australian and Japanese scientists who are combining solar energy and hydrogen power cells are so obviously the wave of the future…. I recognize this as the cultish part of my soul because I don’t know if I am talking out my ass or not – it seems so do-able when you look at the graphics in Scientific American. Is this reason talking, or the worship of reason? Very different things. Still, it was a heckling crowd without being a thoughtful one -- each attached to his or her own solution to saving the world.

The factor that is persuasive to Monbiot, as it is to me, is that the infrastructure is in place for hydrogen conversion, which is imperfect. In other words, it makes the most minor changes to the current lifestyle. Which is the question in the long run – how are we going to overturn the unsustainable patterns of consumerism?

If you look at that question too long, you become insane.

A social scientist, Peter Dauvergne, wrote an article in Global Environmental Politics last year that turned on the question of consumer behavior and irrationality. It wasn’t a great theoretical article – it was, instead, a cry of rage. Dauvergne’s exemplar of irrationality is the way the world has embraced the auto as its preferred way of going from a to b.

He begins with Bridget Driscoll. (Why is there no monument to Bridget Driscoll?)

“Bridget Driscoll was the ªrst to die, on a muggy August afternoon in 1896 in front of London’s Crystal Palace, from a fate that now kills over 3000 people every day. She was 44. Indeed, a long life for the time, but this in no way consoled her daughter, May Driscoll, who was at her mother’s side as Arthur Edsall ran her down in a demonstration “motor-car.” Within moments Dr. Charles Edwin Raddock rushed out of the Crystal Palace. But it was too late. Her brain was “protruding.””

Well, there was an inquest, at which it was determined that Edsall might have been attaining speeds in excess of 14 miles per hour. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death. And the coroner presiding over this first traffic fatality said that he hoped “such a thing would never happen again.”

As Dauvenel points out, it did happen again. In fact, by the time it stops happening, more people will have been killed in car wrecks than died in the Holocaust or the Gulag.

“Imagine, one day, that a Boeing 747 crashes in the United States, killing 135 people. Imagine the same day another Boeing 747 goes down somewhere in the European Union, killing another 135. Now imagine Boeing 747s begin crashing, like clockwork, every hour all day long—a few over the Pacific and Atlantic, a few into mountainsides, the rest into everyday neighborhoods—that day killing 3240 and injuring as many as 137,000 people. Finally, imagine this continues every day all year long. The technology would seem suicidal. No rational frequent ºflyer would ever fly again, . Yet these are the global figures for traffic for 2002.”

I have a feeling that the ability to comfortably coexist with those figures tells us a lot about how people are going to react as global warming begins to reconfigure thermal patterns all over the globe. (In Texas, this spring, due to a combination of hot weather and drought, about 4,000 miles of fence burned. Enough fence burned that, for the first time since the 1880s, a significant portion of the Panhandle is now free range. And that kind of drought is becoming common in Texas). The left dreams of revolution, the right dreams of war, and all of these dreams have in common the idea that a mass of people will change its habits. That they will wake up and look at the thing in the garage, for instance, as their 30 percent chance for an injury over the course of twenty five, thirty years.

The odd thing is, the consumer society has enacted the habit of rapid changes of habits – from tv to cable tv, from phones inside the house to phones in every fucking nook, etc., etc. -- without ever disturbing the essential, stone cold social complacency – the bedrock smugness. LI isn’t even sure that there is anything wrong with the bedrock smugness – if we weren’t speeding towards truly terrible things, while the only lively discussion about change happens on newspaper blogs.
...

Oh, I shouldn’t say that. Bush came up with a solution to the gas price problem today all on his lonesome: suspend environmental regulations. If there is a peculiar genius of predictability, it shines over that pointy little head.

6 comments:

servant said...

Dreams are good. As are castles in the air once foundations are built under them.

By now most folks who have studied alternative energy know that hydrogen is not a source of energy, but rather it is a convenient transport mechanism which requires energy to manufacture. It's very Rube Goldberg-esque. The most efficient delivery infrastructure won't make any difference if it costs more to make the hydrogen than more widely available fossil fuels.

Therefore the Solar Power Satellite concept seems like an idea whose time has come for reconsideration.

The most common it'll-never-work reason thrown down is cost, not feasibility. But as costs rise, any alternative is going to look more and more attractive.

The component technologies already exist - satellites, solar cells, microwave energy transmitters, rectennas etc. Given a small suspension of disbelief regarding the feasibility of the subsystems, the question then becomes one of the scaleability of the whole.

Yes, it's true. Solar collectors in space would have to be miles and miles across, and problems with gravity and cost effective transport systems and long term maintenance must be dealt with. But the long term pay off seems clear.

And with all discussions technical the engineers can quickly empty any room of ordinary folks when they start babbling on about conversion efficiencies and beam attenuation calculations.

But in any large scale endeavor, as Admiral Grace Hopper pointed out, the cost of not doing something is just as important - if not more important - than the cost of doing something.

Other large scale projects with questionable payoffs have resulted from international cooperation between the public and private sectors. The Alaska pipeline. The Concord supersonic transport. (Okay maybe that's a bad example.) The Apollo program. These projects required massive public/private capital as well as creative legislation to make them happen. But it has been done on a super large scale. It could be done again.

And, if the technology were to improve following efficiency trends similar to those we've seen in the past, we might also be looking at another interesting by-product. If one could "beam" energy from space to earth, then it follows that one could "beam" energy from earth back into space, thus offsetting any potential in thermal imbalance which might result from the import of unlimited solar energy. It might also serve as the worlds largest air conditioner to remove excess heat from the planet.

Yes I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one. Some British guy said that. Can't remember his name off the top of my head.

/thehangedman/ said...

Wonderful, Servant!

Can you have that ready to ship by Friday?

Thanks.

servant said...

Absolutely. I just need a check for $100B by Thursday.

:p

roger said...

I think the optimum source for 2100 will be the convergence of solar and hydrogen power.

But to me, one of the key characteristics I am looking for is: less grid. Shipping requires a road grid, admittedly. But the more we can get away from centralizing grids, the better. This is a major downer, to me, with nuclear power -- it emerged from the 20th century 2 grid system -- energy and transport.

Grids are state and big business friendly. The political phylogeny of the petro-chemical sector -- American conservatism -- can be predicted better by its addiction to the grid than by any political "ideas."

However, the deal about all non-CO2 increasing energy sources at the moment is not to get too invested in any one source. That's what I liked about Monbiot's article, and disliked about most of the responses to it. Not all -- there were some fairly good objections. But this isn't the project to find the philosopher's stone -- it is a project to step back from killing the human friendly plnaet of the last 100000 years. Myself, I feel, but can't articulate, that there is a deep connection between the grid systems we've developed and the frenzy of consumerism. I don't see the latter being overcome by moral scolding, but by deep structural changes.

/thehangedman/ said...

What's needed is a thorough analysis of Monbiot's dream to see how it's energy conversions and infrastructure changes balance out with ultimately recoverable energy.

I do not see how we gain anything by consuming energy to generate hydrogen, which then requires a wholesale re-installation of the gas fittings and furnaces for every end-user! ANd vehicles already exist that run on natural gas!

I wonder where Monbiot gets his visions, much less his numbers. Perhaps it was a crumb of cheese...

roger said...
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