Why we should ALL support Renewable Energy 1 – QOL versus SOL, and new technology

The next series of posts are about broader aspects of why we all should support renewable energy and fuels and a different way of thinking that is as revolutionary and cost effective as the electricity and the automobile was to the lost world of the animal drawn wagon and whale oil lighting systems.

Do you believe that Climate change is human caused, or not?  It doesn’t really matter.  We all should be supporting renewable fuels for logical reasons that are beyond the geo-economic-political-scientific arguments that are causing the rifts between rational people and a better quality of life for everyone. Note, that I say Quality of Life (QOL) not Standard of Living (SOL) – we assume and confuse the two as being the same when each is vastly different. 

SOL is the degree of wealth and material comfort available to a person or community.  It is measured by Gross Domestic Product per capita.  In other words, how much money is moving through a country’s economy in a given year (this will be covered more in the next posting). QOL is the general well-being of individuals and societies, taking into account the negative and positive aspects of life.  It is less about the economy and more about life satisfaction, including everything from happiness, physical health, family, education, employment, wealth, safety, security to freedom, religious beliefs, and the quality of the environment.  A good SOL is good, but a better QOL is preferable!  If a QOL includes a good SOL, so much the better, as long as the SOL has all the attributes that create a good QOL!!!  Having sat in many ridiculous traffic jams and watched people struggle with finances, I note that sociological studies show that that the Quality of Life (QOL) in the U.S. is not as people would believe. If the amount of money were truly equal to QOL then people with more money should have the highest QOL.  Alas, this is not true.  People with more money feel more secure from financial threats, but other than that, they do not score any higher on any measure of QOL – indeed, in many cases they score lower because their whole world is tied up with financial worries and loss of community support.       

I also find that what people are determined to defend, quite passionately at times, is the technology they perceive is essential to standard of living in a modern industrial society. If we exclude the people who benefit directly from investments in fossil fuels, we find that people supporting fossil fuels do so from an ideological basis and not a factual one.  I was once in a discussion – actually I was talking but he was almost screaming at me – about fossil fuels and renewable energy options. The man kept saying that society and the economy would collapse without oil, coal, and gas fuels.  He kept going on about his problem of getting to work without gasoline to put in his car.  Like me he was old enough to recall the oil embargo and shortages of the 1970s and he feared a reoccurrence.  When he had calmed down, I asked him if he was in love with gasoline and the internal combustion engine, or was it more that he needed a vehicle to get to work in a reliable, efficient, convenient and cost-effective manner. Did he really care what happened behind the scenes when he flipped a light switch as long as the light or appliance came on? So many people seem ready to fight for fossil fuels when in fact what they really want is merely the technology and resource stability to maintain their lifestyle and move about with the ease that modern cars allow. If battery systems were more advanced in 1893, we would all be driving electric cars today and no one would be fighting for gasoline driven engines.  Back then we would have had coal fired, and hydro, electric generation, but batteries may have been a major storage factor even back then.  When we look at today’s problematic electrical grid system, the easiest solution using today’s options is the one most challenged – to use renewable forms of energy generation that readily lend themselves to localized sources.  More about the grid and Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs) in another post.  

First, a little short story about greed and control and the electrical system we take for granted.  By 1900, the modern AC electrical grid was fast becoming the way of the worlds electrical supply.  There were two inventors vying for dominance in this new technology: Thomas Edison (General Electric) using his DC system and Nikola Tesla (Westinghouse) with his AC system.  Tesla was well ahead of the game and won the contract to electrify the lighting system at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. After that the AC system became the standard for electric utilities worldwide.  Now the big money guys got into the act. The first automobiles were electric and John D. Rockefeller was greatly concerned.  Not only was his oil monopoly profit being threatened by the electric grid (people used Kerosene derived from Oil, which had taken over from Whale oil before then) but electric cars would also remove gasoline as a potential fuel in the cars.  Rockefeller backed Henry Ford and created the gasoline driven internal combustion engine as the automotive standard. Tesla was still at the top of his game and his electricity genius was beginning to concern other money giants.  For a time, many of the leading financiers of the day vied with one another to invest in Tesla’s projects. Eventually the most important US banker of his generation, J.P. Morgan (notable financier for the Rothchild family), became Tesla’s exclusive backer during the period when he experimented most actively using wireless transmission rather than wires for conducting electrical current.  At this point the story becomes unclear.  Despite J.P. Morgan backing Tesla’s many inventions with a 51% share, it seems that Tesla was more concerned about providing humanity with cheap, even free, energy more than making money.  Almost overnight, Morgan, for whatever reason, pulled his support vilifying Tesla’s work as problematic.  The most popular and logical reason seems to be that Tesla’s potential wireless electrical system would be almost impossible (at that time) to meter usage for the buying and selling of electricity.  Tesla lived the rest of his life a broken and ruined man unable to continue his experiments.  Almost immediately after his death in 1943 all his research documentation was removed by U.S. government’s Office of Alien Property. What happened to it after that is the stuff of Hollywood movies.     

Over a century later we are still entrenched with the same system of producing electricity – we need something to spin a turbine that creates electrical AC energy.  Until relatively recently, we heated water (coal, oil, methane, nuclear decay, trash) to produce super-heated steam, or a kinetic water source (e.g. water moving downhill), that spins the turbine.  While micro-hydroelectric systems are now available (if you live near a running water source you’re allowed to use) the rest require a large-scale power plant, so we stuck with the grid system.  Or are we? 

The current technology exists for every house to be its own power generating system, which can then feed unused electricity back into a more localized grid for local businesses to use.  In classes I would show my students a Google image of the houses surrounding the university.  I asked them to notice the most wasted space in the picture that was soaking up sunlight – the roofs!  Imagine every house having solar panels (PVs) on the sunny side coupled with Solar Thermal panels, small wind generators, and below surface geothermal heat-pump systems connected to the house.  This means we could all be independent of grid electrical needs.  It has already been shown to be doable.  I had a friend who built his house off the grid in Evergreen, Colorado, and for the next 20 years that he lived there, never paid a utility bill. His water was from a well with a solar powered pump. He also had a leach field so no sewage costs either.  His house costs to build were $1.05 cent per square foot compared to the average $1.25 square foot for all the other ‘regular homes’ around him. There are so many ways to do this kind of system with current technology.  The only drawback?  People resistant to thinking differently!  Economists also have a say emphasizing its expense to changing the whole system.  What they neglect to show is how scale of use reduces prices needed for investing in this idea when building a home.  Before all the naysayers rush out to point out a minor problem, let me point out that all the technologies require some form of manufacturing that in itself can be a polluting part of the system through mining of necessary minerals.  I admit it is not perfect, but compared to the highly polluting fossil fuels that we burn ALL the time, it is a step in a better direction, because once in place they are a non-polluting source of electricity for a long time. The pollution aspect is the one I hear least about when people are arguing about getting beyond fossil fuels.  The reliability and economic aspects are always the first and foremost arguments, but quality of life gets lost in the arguments.  More about that in the next posting.