Jul 12 2010

A Great Tutorial On Energy

Published by at 8:18 am under All General Discussions

Jeff Id at The Air Vent posted this excellent summary about energy sources and why the fossil and nuclear fuels work and the so-called renewables are too limited to support our modern society. Jeff brings to the debate an understanding of the general physics behind energy use, that is important in understanding why liberal fantasies about energy are based mostly in ignorance (if not, misinformation). Let me just touch on some of the high points and emphasize why they are critical to discerning a good idea from naive wishful thinking.

First, energy is either being emitted/transferred (e.g., wind turbine, solar cells, hydraulic) or it has been captured and stored (e.g., fossil, nuclear sources):

First there is no such thing as renewable energy, it’s kind of fitting that the very word greenies have coined is itself a lie. I say that because there are so many lies and exaggerations in the world of green energy that it makes ‘renewable’ a perfectly fitting term.  The second law of thermodynamics makes sure that the energy we convert is extremely difficult to recover, in a perfectly efficient system you could convert your CO2 back into gasoline but of course it would take as much ‘work’ as you just got out of it.

Physics talks of ‘work’ & ‘energy’ and that can be a real eye glazer. The concept of work is best known to bicyclists, who coast down a hill only to have to work to get back up the next hill.

Another important distinction is the concept of storing energy and tapping it. We all know you cannot store the energy in a sail to use later, so even if you are not familiar with ‘storing’ verses ‘transfer’ details you understand holding energy to use later is not easy, cheap or safe.  Jeff also notes this key distinction:

Green energies such as wind, wave, solar electric, hydroelectric, and solar thermal, biofuel, etc. all have one thing in common.  They are all forms of solar power.  It takes energy from the sun to drive wind, wave and create plant fuels.

Interestingly all but one of these green energies is like the sail in a wind. Solar electric and hydroelectric trap the energy and turn it immediately into electricity. Stop the wind and your boat stops moving. Lose the sun and the solar cells stop producing. All these are transient sources without storage for later use. The one exception is biofuels, which are a low grade version of fossil fuels. Jeff notes how these transient sources actually do not have a lot of energy output when averaged over the day, week or year.

The reason is that if we were to use ‘corn’ to power our cars in the US, even basic calculations show that we would need more than all the land mass of the North American continent to be a producing viable corn field, and more sophisticated calculations show that we may be net loosing energy by corn ethanol. Basic calculations on algae biofuel produce equally ridiculous results like two land masses the size of Texas to drive all the US cars — only.  Again more sophisticated calculations will produce even worse results.

The fact is biofuels are a very low energy source when you compare pound of biological source required to generate a unit of power. Pathetic really. Not much better is solar electric and wind, as Jeff notes. So how do these wimpy green energy sources differ from fossil fuels and nuclear? Jeff is spot on with his observations:

Another form of solar power is oil and coal, they are a form of very inefficiently stored solar energy from millions of years ago. Nuclear fission is also a form of solar if you take it back to the stars believed to have created the heavy elements used in the fission process.  However, both fossil fuels and Nuclear used energy from stars which has been stored in relatively convenient packages for release by the right equipment at a moments notice.

Biofuels are a poor-man’s fossil fuel.  While the energy is inefficiently stored in minute quantities in both cases, the packaging of the energy is very different. Fossil fuels are natural. They are the byproduct of life that existed for 100’s millions of years before us. It is nature’s version of biofuels. It is why most of us with science backgrounds sort of snicker at the idea oil from corn fields today is somehow better than oil from algae that covered an inland ocean millions ago. Green does sometimes also mean naive.

Fossil fuels are biofuel sources that have been packed the energy into a dense and mobile package. Crude oil can be pulled from the Earth and then shipped to refineries where different forms of energy can be produced (gas, diesel, etc) and other important chemical resources can be derived. We recycle just about everything from these ancient biofuel sources in the refining process (remember, we call them ‘fossil’ fuels for a reason).

The one and only extremely clean and power packed energy source is nuclear. As Jeff notes it also a form of ‘solar’ energy because the energy contained in the nuclear bonds of source material was created inside stars. Stars produce all the larger elements either during their normal life burning or during the end of life explosions. They too are an elemental part of nature.

Harnessing nature is what all life forms do. The tap into the energy dissipating from the Sun to create a flow of life billions of years old. The algae, and later plants, began the process by collecting the energy of the Sun through photosynthesis. Later came mobile life, which lived off the plants (plankton through animals). If you have a broad scientific grounding, as apparently Jeff does, then you can just begin to see the uncountable interconnections and complexity of the machine of life. Life is not just one circle, but combination of interwoven gears and behaviors which have evolved over time and are still evolving to this day. It does have a spiritual balance to it, but it is a pattern that does not repeat for long. In the long view, it does not repeat at all. So while there is a harmonious balance, it is also resilient enough to adjust to a new balance in response to events large and small.

What Jeff is demonstrating is how knowledge is important in making global decisions. The liberals in DC and who push Green ideas are many times acting out of naive emotion. I stand with them in protecting the whales, but wind farms are an insane destruction of our planet and a threat to life. I stand with them in keeping our waters clean, animal habitats protected (to a point) and air clean. But solar power will not run a locomotive fool of goods. Sails cannot move container ships over the ocean. Airlines cannot fly on wind power alone. While electricity sources can be static, transportation requires the fuel to move to be brought along. Electricity cannot be provided by biofuels, wind or solar – we require too much now for basic living conditions.

These are all stubborn facts. Just like it would be nice to be able to fly like a bird, but physics shows humans will never to do so naturally. It is OK to dream or have good intentions, but to impose them on others by confiscating their hard earned money requires much more than a fictional vision of a more perfect reality.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “A Great Tutorial On Energy”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Free To Prosper, AJ Strata. AJ Strata said: new: A Great Tutorial On Energy http://strata-sphere.com/blog/index.php/archives/13728 […]

  2. WWS says:

    Great link, great post. Jeff didn’t discuss geothermal power, but the geothermal projects financed by this administration California and Oregon have both failed by now. There’s a simple reason – the Earth is too great a heat sink, and there’s no way to stop the deep heated fluid from losing most of it’s energy as it travels to the surface at the depths you have to go to in the U.S., and as the fluid cools a lot of nasty minerals (like arsenic) drop out of solution and clog all the pipes. The only way Geothermal works is if you live on top of a giant, shallow magma pool, like the people in Iceland. Otherwise, forget it.

    Notice how now BP is installing a cap which will be able to shut off the flow? Here’s (not much of) a secret – this could have been done anytime during the last 80 days. Why did they wait? Because if you go back and read the interview with Thad Allen that came out this weekend, where he describes the procedure that will be done when the relief wellbore is finally connected to the original wellbore, it is clear that what he is clumsily describing is the procedure needed to kill a well which is undergoing a massive underground blowout – significanlty more complicated than a simple surface blowout.


    They have never before admitted that they knew this was going on (underground blowout means that the deep high pressure zone is discharging itself into lots of other low pressure zones as well as the surface because the wellbore is massively damaged). BUT if an operator knows they have one, then the procedure is to allow the surface to vent as wide open as possible, to minimize the downhole repercussions. Which is exactly what BP has done, and which is why there has been no attempt to actually shut the wellhead off until now.

    And obviously the government has known this as well, which Thad Allen’s comments indicate. So why did they all decide that this part needed to be covered up? Especially when anyone who knows about the drilling process can figure out what they’re up to pretty easily?

  3. tarpon says:

    One thing to inject, energy is not renewable, you can make more, grow more, produce but once used energy is gone. Basic physics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So producing more ‘new’ energy does not make it renewable.

    Once you burn the tree, you can regrow the tree, but you cannot renew the burnt tree into new energy. I know it’s a small point of semantics, but the liberals have changed the words so people believe the impossible, renewable energy. Regrowing a tree takes energy(sun), fertilizer and land that produces the new regrown tree. And how do you get the tree to the fireplace.

    It like everybody seems to think solar panels just show up, and windmills just pop out of the ground, when nothing is farther from the truth. Without energy sources, neither could be manufacturered, installed maintained nor made useful.

  4. Alert1201 says:

    “Basic calculations on algae biofuel produce equally ridiculous results like two land masses the size of Texas to drive all the US cars”

    The liberals have a solution to this problem as well. Get us to drive less and smaller cars.

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  6. Fai Mao says:

    I thought that geologist had com to the conclusion that oil is not a fossil fuel. I thought they now believe that it is the result of the decomposition through cooking of rocks and magma in the Earth’s crust. There was even a PBS program on this several years go titled “The World is full of Oil”

    If so, that would make oil a renewable energy source and a non-solar energy source.

  7. Alert1201 says:

    Fai Mao,
    I do not think that all or even most of the geologists have accepted the theory that oil is not a fossil fuel. I understand that many Russian geologists accept the idea but it is not universally held view. I’m not an expert on this but the fact that most keep calling it a “fossil” fuel would indicate it is not widely held.

    Would be interested to hear what WWS has to say about the abiotic theory.

  8. Juker says:

    Hey I am a geologist/geophysicist, though not in the oil patch. Abiotic theory is totally and utterly fringe. My understanding is that it is a very OLD Russian theory and I doubt modern day Russians believe in it. The mechanisms it posited to jibe with observations were unnecessary after plate tectonics theory came to the fore in the ’60s. I’m all for being a skeptic but oil as a fossil fuel is about as proven as science can get.

    On recyclables compared to high energy/power density fuels (coal, oil, nuke), an OK book is Power Hungry by Robert Bryce. It is a bit rambly and low-level, but if you want numbers he’s got the numbers. Jeff-id is spot on.

  9. AJStrata says:

    Thanks for chiming in Juker. Always nice to get a professional opinion!

  10. Alert1201 says:

    Thanks Juker. I thought the aboitic theory was a bit odd and suspected not many accepted it. Thanks for confirming that!