More Energy, Less Work (Part 2)

Posted on December 13, 2013


Power GridMost of us take energy for granted. We drive to the gas station, crank up the thermostat, or flip a switch, and we have all the power we need. And while solar, wind, and other alternative sources are growing more prevalent, most of our energy still comes from the process of taking a raw material and converting it to some usable form.

Electricity, for example, is usually generated by burning something – oil, coal, or natural gas – and using the resulting heat to boil water. Steam turns a turbine, creating a flow of electrons. This flow is then zapped through wires to our homes, allowing us to watch other people on television as they make fools of themselves, or pretend to solve gruesome murders, or earn millions for hitting a little ball into a hole.

As you can imagine, the process of creating electricity is expensive. Those resources they need to burn are hidden away in pockets deep inside the Earth, and have to be extracted with long corkscrews and pumps. If you’ve ever tried to dig something out of the ground, you know how hard it can be, especially if you’re using those tools you bought on sale, the ones with the cardboard handles.

OilAnd it’s getting even harder, and more costly. There was a time when chunks of coal were lying around, right out in the open and practically begging to hop into one of those metal carts. Oil bubbled near the surface, and people would discover it when they weren’t even looking, maybe when they were planting tomatoes or burying some guy they’d recently killed in a duel. They’d strike a big gusher, then dance around, letting the first few gallons rain into their hats and not caring that they were being showered in a thick fluid that was slippery and crude and really hard to get out of your hair.

Those days are gone.

I won’t go into the details of oil exploration, mainly because I don’t know a thing about it. But my point is, we need to find something else to burn, and it has to be something we won’t run out of. It would be especially helpful if it were a substance we produce in great quantities, and without much thought. This last part is critical, because as soon as we hand this concept over to the engineers and lawyers, they’re going to weigh it down with health warnings and possible loopholes and liabilities. Every American president since Martin van Buren has called for a reduced dependence on foreign oil, and you can see how far we’ve gotten with it. The Republicans want us to drill holes in our national parks, and the Democrats want us to abandon our comfortable vehicles and start walking to the supermarket. If we let the politicians have their way, the next thing you know, we’ll all be walking to the national parks, and they’ll be drilling holes in the supermarkets.

There has to be a better answer. I believe that answer is garbage. And believe me, as much of a dabbler as I am, this wasn’t my idea. In the 1980s, Con Edison in Staten Island was burning trash to create electricity. This was thirty years ago. Many cities in the United States today are using garbage for fuel, and transforming the heat into power. It isn’t a popular thing, though. Nobody wants a big building filled with smoldering trash across the street from their favorite frozen yogurt shop. And why is that? Because most people are small thinkers. But not small enough. That’s where I come in.

First, we tell the utility companies they can’t burn any more oil. What they can burn is coffee cups. Not those plastic souvenir mugs you got on vacation in Minnesota, or the matching pair commemorating the latest wedding of the century. They don’t burn well, and give off meager amounts of heat. I mistakenly put one into the microwave once, and turned it into a coaster in exactly thirty-four seconds. I’m talking about the empty cups you see lying on their sides in the Wal-Mart parking lot, or stuck behind the backstop at the local Little League field. Imagine if the electric companies were forced to buy that stuff from us. People would be climbing over each other to pick it up. They’d be gathering huge bags of litter to sell, and not just paper cups either, but cigarette butts, junk mail, and any other combustible material that’s now blowing around and spoiling the landscape. They’d also stop buying things that come in plastic packaging, because they’d know those items have no resale value. Less demand for plastic eventually translates into a diminished supply of plastic. We’d be saving oil and cleaning up the planet, all without that much effort.

Second, we tell the automobile companies they can’t make any more vehicles that run on petroleum products. There are already engines that use ethanol, which is made from corn. I like corn, so I plan to put a stop to that practice. But I see no reason we couldn’t substitute beets, broccoli, or squash, and derive the same benefits.

Third, we stop messing around with the clocks twice a year. I understand that as the days grow shorter, it makes sense to grab an extra hour of sunlight in the morning, but we’re just turning the lamps on an hour earlier at night. While there might be some documented advantage to this, I doubt anyone has considered the millions of people who forgot to change their clocks on Saturday, and get halfway to work on Monday — only to finally notice that it’s six-thirty, not seven-thirty — and end up driving all the way back home. Even with a gas tank filled with distilled turnip oil, that’s pretty wasteful.

And fourth, we have to get rid of these low-wattage, energy-efficient light bulbs. I know they’re guaranteed to last fifteen years, but that’s based on a specific number of minutes per day. How does the manufacturer back up such a claim? Do I have to supply a logbook? I can’t even manage to keep track of the receipts from my light bulb purchases. And when they do burn out, I have to take them to the recycling center to throw them away. I have one of those South Korean cars, and I’m going broke from all these savings.

I realize these suggestions are far from perfect, and not nearly complete. That’s why I spend as much time as possible in contemplation. As I said, I’m a problem-solver. Sometimes I’ll park a chair next to the oven, set the dial to self-cleaning, and stare through the little window for about six hours. Nothing ever seems to happen, though, and I eventually fall asleep. When I wake up, it’s all over. The unidentifiable stains that had covered the sides and racks are now a small pile of gray dust on the floor of the oven. What powerful and unseen force might have produced such a result? Could it have been gravity? I’m not certain, but I think there were invisible strands of glue flying around inside there.

That’s my hunch, anyway.