[extropy-chat] FWD (SK) A skeptical look at green technology

Terry W. Colvin fortean1 at mindspring.com
Sat Oct 1 03:01:28 UTC 2005

Don't shoot the messenger...


If I see one more article about how wonderful alternative energy is compared 
to oil, I'm gonna flip. Alternative energy sources can be good — very good 
in fact. And it's pretty obvious that we're going to need them, and that our 
dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise) is a Bad Thing.
But accepting that does not mean accepting that any kind of alternative 
energy is by default a good thing.

To *be* a good thing, it has to have three properties: 1) It has to help 
reduce our dependence on oil, 2) It has to be no worse for the environment, 
and 3) It has to be economically practical.

Many of the things touted meet one or even two of those criteria. Solar 
panels, for example. They can reduce our need for oil, at least in certain 
regions, and they're certainly not bad for the environment. But they're 
prohibitively expensive. If you spend the money to make your home 
solar-powered, you probably won't recoup your costs for at least 15 years, 
which approaches the lifespan of the panels.

I realize that these days, taking a moderate position on anything makes you 
the enemy of everyone who has an extreme view. But green isn't alwaysgood, 
and oil isn't always bad.

Certainly we need to clean up our act big time and find viable sources of 
alternative energy. Depending on the Saudis — and oil — for our energy needs 
is stupid.

But we also have to keep in mind that every one of these alternative-energy 
sources comes at a cost, which is something people seem to forget. They hear 
the phrase "alternative energy" and automatically assume it's got to be 

And this makes them no better than the people who hear it and think it's a 
waste of time.

Two seemingly "green" technologies that pop up again and again are ethanol 
and electric cars. Both are touted by well-meaning people as good forthe 
environment and a way to reduce our oil dependence, especially as oilprices 
continue to rise.

I've written in detail about ethanol before, but it deserves a rehash. The 
Senate, you see, is considering a bill that would require a doubling of the 
amount of ethanol mixed with gasoline at the pump.

They *say* it's about oil dependence and the environment, but it's not. It's 
about buying votes from farmers by artificially creating demand for crops — 
ethanol coming, in large part, from corn.

But there are a bunch of problems with ethanol. First, it doesn't have as 
much energy as gasoline, which means it takes about 1.5 gallons of ethanol 
to get you as far as one gallon of gas.

Ethanol also requires a lot to produce it — 26 pounds of corn to get a 
gallon, in fact. And growing corn requires lots of water and fertilizer and 
pesticide, not to mention the energy required to distill it into ethanol.

And by-products of that distillation include (according to the EPA) acetic 
acid, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and methanol, all of which are pumped 
into the air. Yum.

It boils down to this: Ethanol sounds good, but the energy required to 
produce it, and the pollutants it generates, mean it's arguably worsefor 
the environment than gasoline, especially considering the cleanlinessof 
today's engines.

On the other hand, even with the acreage, water, fertilizer, and pesticide, 
ethanol has one big thing going for it: It's not produced by the Saudis.

Hearing the un-researched praises heaped on ethanol sets my teeth on edge, 
but hearing the supposed ecological wonders of electric cars makes mewant 
to bang my head against the desk. (I'm talking about true electric vehicles, 
not hybrids.)

Electric cars are dirty. In fact, not only are they dirty, they mighteven 
be *more* dirty than their gasoline-powered cousins.

People in California love to talk about "zero-emissions vehicles," but 
people in California seem to be clueless about where electricity comes from. 
How else can you explain a state that uses more and more of it while not 
allowing new power plants to be built?

Quoth Schoolhouse Rock: "Power plants most all use fire to make it: 
electricity, electricity/Burnin' fuel and usin' steam, they generate 
electricity — electricity."

Aside from the few folks who have their roofs covered with solar cells, we 
get our electricity from generators. Generators are fueled by something — 
usually a hydrocarbon (coal, oil, diesel) but also by heat generated in 
nuclear power plants. (There are a few wind farms and geothermal plants as 
well, but by far we get electricity by burning something.)

In other words, those "zero-emissions" cars are likely coal-burning cars. 
It's just the coal is burned somewhere else so it *looks* clean.

It isn't. It's as if the California Greens are covering their eyes — "If I 
can't see it, it's not happening."

But it's worse than that. Gasoline is an incredibly efficient way to power a 
vehicle; a gallon of gas has a lot of energy in it. But when you takethat 
gas (or another fuel) and first use it to make electricity, you wastea nice 
chunk of that energy, mostly in the form of wasted heat — at the generator, 
through the transmission lines, etc.

In other words, a gallon of gas may propel your car 25 miles. But the 
electricity you get from that gallon of gas won't get you nearly as far — so 
electric cars burn more fuel than gas-powered ones.

If our electricity came mostly from nukes, or geothermal, or hydro, or 
solar, or wind, then an electric car truly would be clean. But for 
political, technical, and economic reasons, we don't use much of those 
energy sources. We should, but we don't — that means those electriccars 
have a dirty past.

Furthermore, today's cars are very, very clean. I'd be willing to bet 
they're a lot cleaner than coal-burning power plants. And that's not even 
getting into whatever toxic niceties are in those electric cars' batteries — 
stuff that will eventually end up in a landfill.

And finally, when cars are the polluters, the pollution is spread across all 
the roads. When it's a power plant, though, all the junk is in one place. 
Nature is very good at cleaning up when things are not too concentrated, but 
it takes a lot longer when all the garbage is in one spot.

Being green is good. We've squandered our space program on things like the 
International Space Money Pit, so we won't be leaving the planet verysoon. 
It's what we've got and we should do better at taking care of it.

But that doesn't mean we should jump on any technology labeled "green" 
anymore than investors should have jumped on any stock labeled "tech"in the 
1990s. We know what happened there.


'Email to a friend'

Paul W Harrison, TESL
interEnglish (Finland)

"Only a zit on the wart on the heinie of progress." Copyright 1992, Frank Rice

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < fortean1 at mindspring.com >
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