Scott Adams, of "Dilbert" fame, writes a popular blog that I visit from time to time. The blog is divided into approximately equal parts funny stuff and what Susan Jacoby calls "junk thought," which is to say, it's split between deliberate and inadvertent humor. For example, Adams doesn't "believe" in evolution, but, at the same time, thinks (apparently with some seriousness) that human beings are pre-programmed computerized holograms with no free will (or something like that—I confess I let my mind wander when he goes off on his philosophical tangents). To paraphrase an old Vaudeville joke, as a philosopher Adams is a very good cartoonist.
In a recent post, he wonders whether it might not be possible for solar households to "store up" solar energy for nighttime use by pumping water up into a tank using sun power and then reharvesting the energy when it flows back down again. (Compressing and then uncompressing air is mentioned as an alternative strategy.)
Scott Adams's pre-programmed hologram (he has no free will). Photo credit: CILIP Communities
He's confusing two different problems. Individual solar houses do just fine with batteries, and they use them day and night. My friends Jim and Becky, who are 98% solar, have five house batteries, which I remember as being maybe twice as large as car batteries.* The batteries occupy what amounts to a small closet. Two solar panels (total 4'x4') charge the batteries, and the house (~1728 sq. ft.) runs off the batteries at all times. My friends are frugal with electricity, but, in case you don't want to be, I would presume that a few extra panels and a few more batteries would allow you to be more profligate. Bear in mind that we're talking about a small, efficient house (24' x 24' x 3 stories on a hillside in an off-the-grid community on the back side of a ridge in Vermont), not a sprawling exurban McMansion. They do have a washing machine, which (like anything with a motor—vacuum cleaner, furnace blower, etc.) is an energy pig. They've been living this way for, oh, I don't know, 15 or 20 years now.
Nighttime power for single houses isn't the issue; it's using massive solar power fields as power plants to supply power grids for whole cities. For that, batteries become unfeasible and it's problematic to meet demand when the sun isn't shining.
The problem for homes is just the initial investment, although we're not talking about so much money that it couldn't be built into normal mortgages. We just lack the social customs and the will and desire. And if every new house were solar, the initial cost of the equipment would come down pretty quickly.
We human beings are very good at responding to immediate crises, but very bad at long-term planning on a society-wide basis. Just as we stopped increasing fuel efficiency standards for cars as soon as the 1973 OPEC crisis became a thing of the past, we insist on calculating things like solar equipment investments based on "how soon it will pay for itself"—based on today's conventional energy costs and initial equipment costs. And sure enough, when you look at it that way, it doesn't seem to make the best sense. But that means we will be unprepared for a future in which conventional energy costs will be much higher. And we don't factor in associated problems such as pollution, climatological effects, and oh, say, undesirable dependence on backward nepotistic oligarchies and ineffectual puppet governments half a world away. Right now, for instance, every man and woman in the U.S. over the age of 18 is currently paying about $39 a month for the Iraq war, which is being fought to ensure U.S. access to Iraqi oil fields. We should add that amount to our calculation of our monthly gas bills, because we're going to be paying it one way or the other.
Humans' collective poor foresight is what makes problems like global warming so dangerous. It's a problem that "loads" slowly and with little outward effect, but that will be very difficult to reverse by the time it worsens into obvious crises. That's the very type of problem we're worst at. Same deal with population control and—not coincidentally—energy. As a race, we humans are grasshoppers, not ants. We deal with problems when we have to, and not before. True, we deal with them well once we get around to it, but usually only then. Planning for the long term is something at which we suck.
Incidentally, solar systems do charge in overcast weather; just not as fast. That's the reason why my friends' home only qualifies as 98% solar: the standard for solar systems is to be able to go for three days of continual overcast weather. For the rare occasions when cloudy weather goes on longer than that, they have a small gasoline-powered generator in a shed that looks like a doghouse in the back yard, for topping off the house batteries. I understand they seldom use it, but it's there, just in case.
The invisible fist
One of the most e-mailed articles on NYTimes.com this past week was Thomas L. Friedman's "Dumb As We Wanna Be." If you haven't read it yet, check it out. Friedman calls clean power "the next great global industry," which is certainly true. Unfortunately, virtually over just the course of the Bush Administration, the United States has gone from a world leader in alternative energy to a limping also-ran. Despite the fact that our unofficial national First Principle, capitalism, depends on competition and innovation, U.S. government policy is now to preserve the fossil-fuels industries at the expense of the future. We seem to have committed to not adapting to changing conditions. We've already fallen well behind Germany and Brazil and several other countries in preparing for the energy realities of the future. That's too bad in innumerable ways: most obviously because it will inexorably contribute to our national decline, but also because there is going to be lots and lots and lots of money to be made in alternative energy in the 21st century, and those profits aren't going to be nearly as centralized as they have been in the oil and gas industries. More individuals will stand to benefit—clean energy solutions in the 21st century will mint a million new millionaires. Our current policy is simply ensuring that more of those fortunate enterprising individuals will live in other countries, and not in the U.S. Here, our action steps involve complaining bitterly over still-cheap gasoline prices, but, mainly, in pretending it's 1950 and that all oil comes from Texas.
- (Continued below the break)
A surprising amount of work goes into these little articles.
Want to help keep 'em coming? Please just bookmark our
Amazon links -------->
And every time you buy something from Amazon, we'll get
a little commission. Hey, it's not much, but it adds up.
Of course, there's a "free market theory" that holds that all this will adjust automatically, as the famous "invisible hand" works its wonders. Sure. That's true. But the problem is that the invisible hand can make a fist and smack us right upside the head. Nothing ever said the free market has to be gentle with us. The simplest explanation of socialism I've ever heard is, "capitalism is competitiveness, and socialism is cooperation." What that nice line emphasizes is that it's not really a case of either/or, and never has been. Even the most competitive societies depend to a degree on cooperation.
There's one thing I really don't understand about what we seem to be doing. Almost no matter what future energy scenario you "believe" in—whether it's a diverse collection of industries tied together by far-forward-looking governmental policies, or Iraq as a captive client-state whose oil we control directly, or using solar power during the day to hoist your swimming pool up into a water tower to run a turbine generator for the nighttime—there is no possible advantage that I can see under any scenario for simply continuing to waste fossil fuels as if they're cheap and limitless. That's just going to make it more likely that the "adjustment" that eventually affects us is going to hurt. Yet that's just what we're doing. We still drive two-ton trucks on silly unplanned errands whenever we feel like it, and build new houses so huge that each one sucks up as much energy in a week as we could be using to sustain us for a year. Whatever else we should be doing, we should be conserving. And we should be doing it with a will, with gusto, unity, and great concentration on the task. But no.
If ever there were a time for harnessing the best aspects of cooperation and competitiveness together, it's now, with energy. Unfortunately, we're doing the exact opposite—preserving the worst aspects of our current system and using government to suppress, instead of encourage, innovation and alternatives. That, too, represents costs that we'll have to add to our gas and heating bills some day, to the detriment of our quality of life.
Copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved
*I have not yet been able to confirm the facts regarding what I've said about Jim and Becky, so I might modify this paragraph at some point in the future after I've heard from them. For the time being I'm relying just on my memory, which is...um, what was I saying? I forgot.