Monday, September 15, 2008

Energy. I wish!

As I get older and softer I find energy takes on a different meaning, but that's not what I have in mind here. I have recently found some interesting blogs with some interesting comments. I dropped in a comment on a post dealing with energy, among other things and another blogger left a thoughtful and interesting response. I responded to that but as this has also come up on Teh Squeaky Wheel and some other blogs by people on that forum, I thought I might put down some thoughts here. I tend to get long winded, as my patient friends know all too well, so I will try to get that out of my system here. Energy is the key to modern industrial civilization. The production, distribution, and use of energy is what fuels our economy today and without abundant, inexpensive energy we can not support the quality of life we have come to expect. For most of a century, coal powered western industrial society. It powered industry, transportation, and the military. It was cheap and abundant, well suited to powering mass transport such as trains and ships, powering industrial furnaces, and powering stationary steam engines as industrial prime movers or to generate electricity. It was relatively low tech in it's production, distribution and preparation. Dig it up, break it up, and throw it on the fire. It could even be used for home heating and it could be processed to produce lamp gas or coal tar.

Around a hundred years ago, oil began to supplant coal. It required more elaborate infrastructure to mine, refine, store, transport, and distribute, but it's refined products had much higher energy content and could be used in more sophisticated ways, allowing the introduction of the various types of internal combustion engines. This made possible individual self contained transport, machines, tools, and generators. This also made flight possible. Coal was not abandoned and the oil infrastructure developed. The oil infrastructure was built as technological progress and need made it practical. Coal fueled and powered this transition and is still in use today in those applications where it remains practical.

For most of the last century, oil was the key to industrial, economic, and military power. In the last half of the century only one viable rival has been developed. This is nuclear fission. Ironically it is strong in the same areas that coal was strong, ships and stationary power plants for generating electricity using steam engines. It does not have coal's advantage of low tech production and use. It does have good potential to generate electricity cleanly, safely, and economically. In our navy and in much of the modern world, hundreds of reactors are serving in this way every day and have been for decades. Oil is still needed for it's energy density and it's versatility for portable power production, plus nuclear fission uses scarce material and produces dangerous, long lasting waste that is hard to secure, store, and dispose of. The time for a better answer is approaching.

At this point the only technologies that have shown the potential for replacing oil as our prime energy source are geothermal and nuclear fusion. Both are virtually unlimited and almost non polluting. Unfortunately, neither is ready yet. Other energy producers such as solar, biofuel, wind turbines, and tidal are simply not practical as more than supplements to the others. None are ready to assume a significant share of the energy needs of our society in the near future. To give our industry and science time and resources to develop and produce the energy sources for the mid and long term needs of our society we must look to the resources we have now. This means nuclear fission, coal, and oil. We can not stop the exploration and exploitation of these resources without a collapse of our economy, our society, and our ability to defend ourselves and our interests in this very competitive world.

That's my outlook on energy today, for what it's worth. I'll go into more detail on specific areas or in response to comments if any. The sun is coming up so I hope I am coherent. Thanks.


MeadowLark said...

Machinist, the line that scares me is this: without abundant, inexpensive energy we can not support the quality of life we have come to expect.

True. And that it where we are heading. I realize I sound like a whack-job (really, I'm not a hippie either) but I really think we're heading for some dark times. We are not going to be able to PRODUCE enough oil to meet the growing DEMAND. And that's where we're going to get in trouble.

I am not well spoken, but I would definitely stop by Sharon Astyk's place or ClubOrlov among just a few. Peak Oil is real. And it's heading this way.

Machinist said...

Thank you so much for dropping in, Meadowlark. I am so pleased.

I understand your reservation about my comment. I considered how it might be seen in different ways but as you have seen I am not an eloquent speaker and find it hard to be concise. I realize we live in a rather wasteful and "throwaway" culture but that is not what I had in mind when I referred to "lifestyle". We take it for granted that our society can and will produce the goods and services we need to lead healthy, comfortable, safe, and secure lives. We may worry about costs or priorities but we expect the goods and services to be available if we have the price. This is not the norm in much of the world through much of history, as I think you know. Most Americans have never really lived with daily fear for their safety, lack of essential needs or the horror of rationed medical care. A local shortage of toilet paper or batteries for a few days or weeks is headline news. I think we, as a country or society, have grown rather complacent about what it takes to supply that blessed bounty. If we don't discard the things that have allowed us to prosper and we don't stop building a future and eat our seed corn I think we can continue to provide for ourselves and those that follow us. I just hope that is not too big an "if". I worry it may be too late.

MeadowLark said...

I actually do think it's too late. I feel bad for my children because they won't have the same opportunities I had, but I'm glad I taught them some self sufficiency. And made them read The Grapes of Wrath.

Machinist said...

"whack-job"? "Hippie"? No. Not at all. I would never have dropped a comment at your site if I thought that. I would love to hear more of your thoughts.I think we have different opinions on some things but I would bet we share a number of concerns. We just might have different ideas about how to address them. I just saw your nice comment to Wendy and I, thank you.

I might agree about being too late but I am rather sure we would have different reasons for thinking so. If we took the correct actions now I am confident we would be able to pull out of our tailspin but I fear that our citizens are too indoctrinated and too complacent to do what is needed.

MeadowLark said...

That's why I say "too late". We are at the point of "bread and circuses". And for those who don't want to look up the full reference at wikipedia: "Bread and circuses" (or Bread and games) is an ancient Roman metaphor for people choosing food and fun over freedom. It often appears in commentary that accuses people of giving up their civic duty and following whichever political leader offers to satisfy their decadent desires.

That's us. In a nutshell. And without strong leadership that isn't motivated by power and greed, we're hosed.

Boy. I sound negative! ;)

Machinist said...

The more frightening parallel is the growth of an uncontrollable bureaucracy and an unsustainable welfare state. I think these are much more of a threat than depletion of resources. Our current shortages are mostly artificially self imposed.

Human nature is the reason Democracy has never worked and likely never will. We had a good chance with our Republic but we seem to have tossed it for the siren call of mob rule or the seemingly easy role of sheep. Sheep have it good, until the Shepard is hungry.

MeadowLark said...

oooh Machinist... I think perhaps we do have much in common. :)

Now go look stuff up and report back... you actually do have a way with words, so get posting!!!!! :)

Machinist said...

I have been following links and will check the ones you provided. I hope it will lead to some interesting discussions.

By the way, "negative"? I don't think so. You are looking for answers and taking personal action. That is very positive in my book.

Anonymous said...

How interesting that the one piece of your post that I copied to paste here and comment about is the one that meadowlark is most scared of... without abundant, inexpensive energy we can not support the quality of life we have come to expect.

When I read that sentence, I immediately thought of Thomas Friedman's book Hot, Flat, and Crowded... where "flat" means the growing of the international middle class. Who can't be happy that the world is getting better for more people? Who can truly find that scary?

I think a Malthusian would find that frightening.

On the other hand, I'm filled with hope because I believe we're smart enough and determined enough to come up with alternatives to oil. I also believe in abundant resources, not dead ends.

And of course, I'm naive enough to believe there's a God who wants us to be happy, healthy, and thriving.

I know. Terribly naive.

Machinist said...

Nice to see you here, Otta. I think Meadowlark is concerned about waste caused by irresponsible attitudes about conservation. She wants to reduce consumption of dwindling resources. I understand that but I think we disagree on the degree and nature of the shortages. Cheap energy is the foundation of a society that can compete in the world and meet the needs of all it's members. It does not mean a throwaway culture in itself.

Anonymous said...

It's the whole concept of "dwindling resources" I don't buy. Which of course doesn't mean I'm right.

Machinist said...

Otta, I agree that the answer to our problem lies in science. We can't wait until we are desperate. We must start finding the answers now and we must exploit the resources we have to buy that time. I am much more concerned about our politicians wasting our financial resources than I am about the supply of oil, unless they continue to sit back and play games instead of working on practical energy sources instead of PC measures.

Machinist said...

I do see a problem in the future given our increased use of energy in the world. I don't see it as eminent. Our shortages here are self induced. The world wide growth of industrialization is why it is not the answer to clobber our own economy. The other countries will use the resources we don't and without the safeguards or efficiency we would apply. It's like trying to control world population by Americans not having babies. The third world will always breed as many babies as the available food will keep alive. Only a technological society can produce the surplus to feed all the people. Unilateral action in this is counter productive. Look at Europe.

Machinist said...

The problem I meant was with current sources. There are potential energy sources we should be able to access that will supply our needs beyond any reasonably foreseeable future. We need to get going on them. I am confident we can do it if the proper effort is made in a timely manner.

MeadowLark said...

Just a couple of thoughts and then I have to jam for a meeting...

1) I don't think this is a U.S. problem. I think it's global. China and India are using resources at a phenomenal rate, increasing exponentially.

2) I don't think "techno-farming" is necessarily the answer, as I personally have little trust of the industrial food complex that is currently in place.

3) My heavenly father will supply my needs. He never said life would be easy. People during the great Depression had their needs met, but there were a lot of struggles. I think that those who refuse to change will meet many of those struggles.

4) It's the "come to expect" that I am concerned about. Especially here in the US, we EXPECT way to much. We are a nation of wanters.

As far as "things will always get better", I live in the a place that one quarter was listed as the "Most increased real estate market" and 2 quarters later, the "3rd most over-valued market". There were actually tons of people who believed that "real estate can only go up" and that's because we no longer think for ourselves and end up trapped in some media-driven groupthink nightmare.

And I didn't really think when I posted this, so it may sound off kilter but I've got to get out of the house for a meeting and am running late.
Peace to you! More tomorrow.

Machinist said...

I look forward to it, Ma'am. Be well.

Voice of Reason said...


As always, your sentiments are very nicely put. It is also very refreshing to see a discussion on this issue that doesn't devolve into a shouting match.

I'm not sure if this fits the conversation, but I am going to throw in my two cents anyway. Actual value may vary. :-)

I believe in the old saying, "necessity is the mother of invention". Our nation has always led the way on technological innovations, and I think/hope we will continue to do so. I have no doubt that someone out there will find the next true replacement for oil.

I am a huge fan of the kitchen sink approach. I'm not opposed to wind, solar, geothermal, etc. If it can be done in a manner that the market can support it, great!!! But, I don't think we can abandon oil and coal. I would like to see the government get out of the oil business. Quit telling companies when, where and how to do their business. If it is out there, and the companies feel that it is financially feasible to go after it, let 'em. I don't think we should be begging the Saudis to produce more, while at the same time refusing to use our own.

Mac, Thank you for hosting this discussion. I hope my tone hasn't been too devisive. I look forward to following along.

MeadowLark said...

As a former Republican who is now Independent, it's nice to have the conversations without it becoming a "Republicans are evil" "Democrats are stupid" blah blah blha. So my thanks as well.

As far as: "necessity is the mother of invention", it should perhaps include the fact that "an injection of money is the FATHER of invention" (double entendre intended). For without the carrot of cash, what company would bother? Why do you think Solar hasn't gotten very far? I always thought it was because nobody could actually "OWN" it.

And without government subsidies and the pandering that we do to oil companies... just how feasible would it really be?

Cripes. And don't get me started on John McCain's commitment to "reduce food costs". We need to RAISE the quality of food. AAAAARRRRGHHGHH. OK. Rant over. :)

Machinist said...

VoR, your tone is that of a thoughtful gentleman, as always. You could not be more welcome! This discussion has been spreading over several blogs and some of the folks have very different views but the debate has been spirited, thoughtful, and courteous. I'm loving it! As for divisive, BRING IT ON! All I ask is that commenters show each other courteous respect and we both know that is never an issue with you.

I agree about about a broad approach. Different technology favors different areas. While wind, solar, hydro, and tidal all have a place I don't see any of them filling a large percentage of our needs. Geothermal and fusion have the potential to provide almost unlimited clean electricity. With this we can produce clean portable power sources to replace gasoline engines in most uses. Fission reactors are not a long term solution but provide a safe, mature technology as a stop gap while the long term goals are pursued.

Coal was largely supplanted in the first mid twentieth century but continues in use today. I expect we will continue to see oil play a role for a long time to come, but with other sources carrying most of the load the problems of supply and pollution associated with it will fade in importance.

Machinist said...

Hi, Meadowlark! I can see we have some interesting views in common and some interesting differences. I am really looking forward to exploring both. I suspect there are more of the former than the latter. I wonder if we wouldn't both be fairly comfortable with each other's view of the "right" future but differ on the best road. My wife likes residential streets while I prefer highways for travel and mountain roads for fun.

Voice of Reason said...

The carrot of cash is definitely the father of invention, but I worry about government subsidies. I prefer to see market forces determine what makes it and what doesn't.

I think an argument could be made for subsidies in certain instances, but I also caution that subsidies are a double-edged sword. The ethanol industry is one huge example that comes to mind. The subsidies on ethanol production have had far-reaching ramifications. We are now taking corn, which is in just about everything we eat (in one way or another), and converting it to fuel, and it takes more btu's of energy to produce than it makes when it is burned. The by-product is that our food prices are skyrocketing. In a true market-driven system, ethanol fuel would have never been viable, but subsidies provided the carrot of cash that caused farmers to divert our food supply into our gas tanks. I feel that food should be used to feed people first.

Now, after saying all this, I must say that I am biased against subsidies. I just want the government to stay out of my back pocket. :-)

Again, I hope not to offend anyone with my statements. I only throw them out to encourage discussion.

Have a great evening.

Machinist said...

Silly VoR, stop worrying, Sir!

I agree on subsidies in general. The government should only subsidize the development of things the country needs that may not be economically viable without that help.

Ethanol, as you say, is an excellent example of government FAIL! I like the idea of ethanol plants to recycle biowaste which we will be producing anyway. This makes sense as we would otherwise have to expend resources to dispose of the waste and with abundant and cheap energy the loss in the process is not a problem. I agree with you though that it is not viable as a major source of fuel. There is not enough biowaste to support such a program and it is folly to grow food to feed the distilleries. That's like a city buying paper goods to throw away to support it's recycling program. If other sources of biomass like algae are practical to produce for conversion then the private sector will do it and probably better.

MeadowLark said...

Two things:
1) what's your opinion on the Pickens Plan?

2) Why are you two so freakin' polite??? Have I stumbled into an alternate universe!!! Did I wander back in time???? Don't get me wrong, it's refreshing, but I'm just a salty-mouthed Marine with a penchant for belligerence. Although, like I said, I'm enjoying the peace around here. :) Just wondering.

Machinist said...

LOL!! My father was a "salty-mouthed Marine" so feel free to let fly. I have seen enough of your comments on different sites to know you are considerate and polite (even if you might be a hippie!;)

Until very recently the only people who have commented on my site are people I know from an on line community called Teh Squeaky Wheel. Today is the second anniversary, in fact. VoR is one of the original members, I came a little bit later.

It is on my sidebar or here,

I don't know if this will link but you can paste it into the address bar. I used to read a number of blogs and websites but rarely the comments, and I never joined or commented. This group was different from what I had seen before in the way they interacted and I found I was interested in joining in on occasion so I registered. I had thought to just drop in an answer I might know or ask an occasional question but they drew me in and made me feel very welcome. We are generally conservative but there are liberal members and we have had some interesting discussions. Members are all across the country but we have had a few get togethers and many have met and posted pictures. We do have a nasty troll from our founding so we must be careful about personal info on the open forum. You might like to look in and look back. Should you be interested you would be very, very welcome, salt and all. We often disagree on things but for the most part people are courteous and we do not flame and make personal attacks. It's a nice place.

As far as Pickens it is a good plan...for him. Natural gas is great stuff but it has to be drilled for, like oil, and the supply is already stretched. When we had electrical blackouts in California a couple of years ago it was not an electrical shortage but a natural gas shortage. Any plan that converts a significant use of gasoline to natural gas just transfers the shortage from one to the other. Pickens gets richer but we get screwed. Natural gas is found where oil is found and they both must be found, drilled, pumped, and transfered. If we open up oil we will also have more natural gas and this is good as it is clean and easy to use but we also need other energy sources. When energy is abundant and cheap there are so many good things you can do with it besides waste it!

Machinist said...

Meadowlark, I DO hope you keep coming around. I can't tell you how much fun this is.

SillyBlindHarper said...

Good evening, Gentle Mac. I finally sneaked in to read tonight...Dv8 wasn't moving fast enough for me and I couldn't wait any more! :oops:

This is a wonderful discussion! Thank you, Sir. I don't have anything to add to the topic except that it's clearly time for you to read Atlas Shrugged. Let me know when and I'll read it again with you.

It's a pleasure to meet meadowlark and to see VoR again.

SQueaK, VoR!

Rest well, my friend. Thanks again for the conversation.

SillyBlindHarper said...

Aak! I almost missed OtavaRima.

Hi, Otta!!


Machinist said...

Thank you, Gentle Lady. Meadowlark is up there in Oregon with you. I envy you both your beautiful state.

Wendy said...

Hey, did you see the news this morning? The House has approved off-shore drilling. It's going to be interesting ;).

MeadowLark said...

And if ya'll get time, stop by my friend P~ 's place...

He gives us his update from seeing T. Boone speak.

Machinist said...

Hi, Wendy. Great to see you here! I saw your thought provoking post last night and I will respond to it later if you don't mind. As to this "drilling" bill I'm afraid I did see it before going to bed (I keep interesting hours). Unfortunately this bill is a fraud. This is cover for politicians that don't want to be seen opposing drilling when voters are concerned about high energy costs.

It does not allow drilling in most of the areas where there is oil and the means to recover it.

It does not give the legal protection to keep environmentalists from tying these projects up in court as has already been happening for many years.

It demands they drill in areas where it is not worth pumping and removes any incentives to do so and any legal protection that would make it worthwhile.

It gives no incentives to the states to permit the drilling that is authorized.

This bill will have little real effect on addressing the problem and by costing time may have serious detrimental effects on our country. It is a disgraceful sham and it's backers in congress know this. People are being sacrificed for political posturing.

MeadowLark said...

"People are being sacrificed for political posturing"

GRRRR. And how is this different from every time before? And every time to follow?

Machinist said...

Meadowlark, unfortunately it is all too common. I think the current batch in the Senate and Congress have hit new lows in this cynical arena and it is reflected in their historically low approval ratings but there is plenty of blame and shame to go around. The reason the Democrats are in control now is because the Republicans so disgraced themselves with their conduct and their greed that their own base abandoned them. Unfortunately, while I understand the anger, these people have removed the adults from authority and put the children in charge. The results are not irreparable yet but time is being lost.

I do not like John McCains politics but with his choice of Sarah Palin he has energized this election and given some hope of making progress in congress. This is important as McCain and Palin would have trouble getting the changes they want through a heavily Democratic congress, even if they get elected. If voters allow themselves to be herded with empty gestures like this "drilling" bill because it sounds good then and it is too much trouble to look into the boring facts then I have little hope for the near future. Our history has many examples of heavy, terrible prices being paid later because the easy way was taken or an opportunity was missed.

Voice of Reason said...

Hi Meadowlark and Wendy, it is great to meet the two of you,

Let’s see …. my opinion on Pickens …. first, let me say that I am no expert on him, and I request that you guys correct me if I say something that isn’t accurate …. Now, my opinion of him and his plan … I agree with his WORDS whole-heartedly. It’s his motives that I’m a little worried about. I think we really do need to try everything we can to produce our own energy. But, as I said before, I think it should be market driven, not paid for by the government. I think the free market is the only way to truly separate the good ideas from the bad ones.

I am not sure we are being told the whole story about Pickens’ plan. He stands to make tremendous amounts of money, and hey, who am I to blame him, as long as it is earned, and not handed out to him because he knows how to hire the best pork-barrel lobbyist? I have no problem with him getting richer. I just want it to be done on his own dime. The problem I have is that (I think) he is planning on reaching deep into the governmental cookie jar and stealing the best cookies. It’s pretty obvious that he thinks there is a massive amount of money to be made. After all, how much has he spent on advertisements, lately? He wouldn’t have spent that kind of money if he didn’t think the return on investment was going to make it worth it.

I’m also not completely convinced that his scare tactic about the “transfer of wealth” is completely necessary. I think that’s the reason why I question his motives. After all, what better way to get the government to play ball, than to stir up the population with an ominous message of “transfer of wealth to the bad guys”. If you stop to think about it, it really isn’t a transfer of wealth as much as a market driven transaction. We receive something of value (oil) in exchange for something the Middle East considers valuable (our money). They are as dependent on us, as we are of them. Without their oil, our wealth would decline, but without our money, their wealth would decline. To me, a transfer would be handing over our money and not getting anything in return. It would be like giving the grocery store $100 without taking anything home. That is a transfer of wealth to the store, whereas, buying $100 worth of groceries isn’t considered a transfer. It’s just considered “buying groceries”. It doesn’t matter if it is the mom ‘n’ pop store around the block, or the Wal-Mart 100 miles away, it is still just “buying groceries”. Having said all that, I still definitely think we need to come up with our own sources of energy because, while I don’t necessarily mind a global market, I would still rather keep that money in our economy instead of sending it to theirs.

That’s my two cents worth. As I said before, actual value may vary. :-)

As for the drilling legislation … I agree with Mac, it is drilling in name only. There isn’t anything in that legislation that will encourage actual drilling. Its only purpose is to try to provide safe haven for anti-drilling politicians. Now, they have a sound bite for this election cycle that says, “Vote for me, I supported drilling”. It infuriates me that they have done everything they can to prevent drilling, but now they want to say they support it. I think we need to throw ‘em all out on their rumps and start over. I also think we need term limits, so they won’t get so cozy in Washington. Maybe, then they would get some things done for the improvement of the country instead of doing what is best for extending their careers.

As for my politeness … I try to show the same respect for others that I would like to receive from them. In “a previous life”, I used to occasionally engage in flame wars on the various political sites, but I discovered that it really didn’t accomplish anything except elevating my blood pressure. So, one day, I decided to try a different approach – respectful conversation. That’s why I enjoy talking with Mac, Harper, and Otta so much. They, along with everyone at the squeaky wheel (except the resident troll), are the greatest bunch of folks that I could ask to be associated with.

I still enjoy participating in a good, thoughtful debate, but I have (for the most part) retired my flame-thrower. I try to limit myself to the occasional snarky humor. As for my over-apologetic tendencies, I tend to do that because written word doesn’t always come out the same way that spoken word does. My biggest fear is that something I write will come across as offensive when I never intended it that way.

As for being a salty-mouthed marine … no worries there. There’s no way you will say anything that hasn’t come out of my mouth at some time or other. :-) Go ahead and, as Mac said, let it fly.

My goodness, this turned out to be much longer than I anticipated. Mac, I apologize for the long-winded post. Thanks again for hosting this wonderful conversation. I have truly enjoyed it. You are the greatest!

Hi, Harper and Otta. It’s great to see you too!

sillyblindharper said...

Great to see this discussion continuing. Good day, everyone!

VoR - I hooked onto Mr. Pickens' phrase "transfer of wealth" too. Very it was meant to be.

I would love to see the free market brought to bear on the energy crisis. Have you heard about the Ford Ka that they're selling in Europe? It gets astounding mpg's but they can't afford to sell it here because "it's diesel and the market won't support it." Bah!

sillyblindharper said...

Gentle Mac, would you please help me figure out how to get my avatar in here? I feel funny without my little grey frock and my little bent wand...

ReformingGeek said...

Whew! My eyes are tired reading all of these comments. Good conversation and interesting perspectives. I guess I'm somewhat of a hippie but I truly hope we can limit the damage to pristine areas as we drill for the life-juice known as oil. ;-)

Thanks for stopping by my blog and for the kind words. I'm adding you to my blog list!

Machinist said...

Thank you for coming by, Ma'am. I share your hope and I think technology has come a long way in that respect.

Anonymous said...

Mac, this is an excellent post! I love the views you're sharing on your blog, and I nominate you for the "I Love Your Blog" Award.

Machinist said...

Thank you, Chell. I am so glad to see you here. I met some very fine bloggers recently and they have got me talking politics. I saw your new post. I loved hearing how you two got together. I hope you are well.

SillyBlindHarper said...

Chell! It's lovely to see you again. I'm so glad you've come to Mac's place. He's a grand blogger, isn't he...