The Future of Energy 2/18/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

GM and Will Farrell created a commercial for the Superbowl based on the fact that Norway outsells electric vehicles per capita than the US. In his usual over-the-top but fun tongue-in-cheek manner, he calls out Norway insisting that the US will punch them in the face (a metaphor to say they will outsell Norway in electric vehicles, kind of like in the honeymooners Ralph threatened to send his wife to the moon as a metaphor for wife beating). A Norwegian University responded to this threat in an equally humorous video, showing Will that they can stand toe-to-toe with him in tongue-in-cheekdom, the premise of which is to apologize for outselling the US in electric vehicles while struggling to keep Will in the dark about other ways in which Norway outperforms the US in social issues like free college, year-long maternity leave and social medicine. It was, simply speaking, just brilliant.

Right now, the US is struggling with power. Throughout the heartland of the nation, power companies are using rolling hour-long power outages to compensate for a sudden surge in power demand as people are turning up electric heaters in response to the frigid temperatures. In Texas, in fact, the crisis is worse as freezing weather has not only shut down the few wind power generators, but also the coal, oil and nuclear power plants. I find it curious that while Republican senators are quick to use this as an example of the dangers of the “Green New Deal” (a horrible name for a great idea) since the wind generators failed due to freezing, and yet they failed to point out the problem with the fossil fuel and nuclear plants.

Texas is a great example, by the way, of the problem with electrical vehicles. I’ve spoken of this before, but while people claim that electrical vehicles will release our dependence on fossil fuels since they don’t require gasoline, the reality is that if the source of electricity to recharge the vehicles are oil, coal or gas burning power plants, the electrical vehicles are probably worse for the environment than traditional gas powered. True, the vehicle itself is not burning fossil fuels, but even modern batteries are pretty much the worst form of energy storage available today, so the fossil fuels burned at the central power plant to charge the car is being stored inefficiently in the vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we should not have electrical vehicles. In fact, I drive a hybrid myself, but electric cars alone are not enough. If we want to survive as a species, we need alternative transportation methods like electrical vehicles, but we need so much more. We need to standardize charging stations and to invest to build coast-to-coast charging stations, just as we have standardized gasoline nozzles and coast-to-coast gas stations.

In addition, we need to transition out from traditional power generation, such as oil, coal or natural gas to cleaner forms such as hydroelectric, solar and yes, even wind generation (although I think the wind turbine needs to be redesigned so it’s safer for birds). We also need to shift from central power generation (electrical companies) to individual, if not entirely then at least partially such as rooftop solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling. These methods do save money in the long run, but the up-front costs are too expensive for most people, so some form of financial assistance to set it up would go far in this effort.

Power generation is part of the problem, but we also need to improve efficient power usage. For example, going from incandescent to fluorescent lighting was superb, but the amount of energy saved in that step is roughly how much energy is saved when we go from fluorescent to LED lights. Improved insulation, furnace and air conditioners and other means of saving power will also be key for a truly comprehensive energy policy.

It’s important to remember that any form of electrical generation will have problems if we engage in further over-reliance. We depended on fossil fuels for too long, pumping increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere until we find ourselves here, today, at a critical tipping point. Many of the alternative energy methods, including solar energy and LED lights, require specific metals that will lead to an increase in mining damage to our planet. Too much wind power would eventually cause problems with the earth’s jet stream and wind patterns, and too much reliance on solar power would lead to global warming as we absorb light and, rather than reflecting it back into space, would be converted to electricity and therefore trapped on earth. Diversity of power generation, distribution to individuals and away from central power plants and power conservation is our way forward.

And, yes, I wish we had cheaper (if not free) education, healthcare and guaranteed maternity leave as well. Maybe I should move to Norway.

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