The Skywriter

1978 vs. 2010: What's changed, what hasn't (VIDEO)


1978 vs. 2010: What's changed, what hasn't (VIDEO)

schoolhouse-earth 1863x1644

The other day I was watching a collection of old Schoolhouse Rock songs with my son. On came "Energy," which I probably hadn't seen in 30 years. This video (see embeded at the end of this post) was made in 1978, and I was surprised how timely it is today.

Sometimes I think I'm runnin' out of energy
Seems like we use an awful lot for
Heatin' and lightin' and drivin'
Readin' and writin' and jivin'
Energy ... You'd think we'd be savin' it up.

I work at Seattle City Light, where we've just received an award for having the country's longest running energy conservation program. Thirty years ago, energy conservation was a hot topic and it's big again. But in between many forgot the lesson taught in this simple song. We never stopped helping our customers "savin' it up". Because of that, Seattleites use 10% less electricity than they would if we hadn't been running energy conservation projects. Our conservation generator is the cleanest and cheapest source of energy the utility has. It's cheaper for us to buy our customers Compact Florescent Light bulbs than to build a wind farm to generate the electricity that the customer would have needed if they used an incandescent light bulb.

Now in 1859 - way out in western Pennsylvania -
A man had built a rig that got some laughs from folks who came there
But suddenly, a mighty roar came up from under the ground.
And soon a gusher, gushin' oil, soaked all who stood around.
Now no-one knew, when that gusher blew,
The petroleum years were on us,
Or that so many cars and trucks would come to cause a crisis.

In 1978 an "energy crisis" was in full swing. The crisis wasn't really about energy, but about oil. The Arab oil embargo and the increasing strength of OPEC had driven up the cost of gasoline and shortages were a recent memory. The crisis was driven not by a lack of oil, but by international diplomacy and greed. We responded by buying more efficient cars, setting CAFE standards and reducing the use of oil in generating electricity. The price of oil dropped in the 1980s and we went back to our profligate ways, buying SUVs that used their heavy weight to plow through a hole in the CAFE standards.

Around 2005 the price of oil began to rise again and car buyers rediscovered efficient vehicles, with the Toyota Prius replacing the 1975 Honda Civic. The difference being that the rise in oil prices this time was probably driven by demand exceeding supply. Only the recession, which reduced oil consumption, stopped gas prices from continuing to rise. Once the recession is over we're likely to see a real oil crisis as we reach (if we haven't already) peak oil. Hopefully there will be enough Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts on the road to start reducing our demand for oil. These cars use no or much less gasoline to get us down the road. The first Leaf was just delivered and many other plug-in-hybrids and pure electric vehicles will be coming in 2011. Personally I'm very optimistic that these electric cars will soften the blow of peak oil and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Then one day men discovered that coal would do it better
Miners dug, and it looked like it might just last forever.
It seemed like the final solution.
It started the Industrial Revolution.
Energy ... We could just keep on diggin' it up.

We are now in the midst of another "energy crisis", and again it's not driven by a lack of fuel, but by climate change. Our problem is that we have too much coal, which is easy to burn, but is very dirty. Even in 1978 climate change was well understood, though not talked about as much in the press. So we now have two energy problems: we are running out of some fuels (first oil and then natural gas) and the burning of all fossil fuels, mainly coal, is destroying our atmosphere.

Energy ... You can get it by dammin' up a river
Energy ... A windmill can make the breeze deliver
But even with millin' and dammin'
Our needs are so much more demanding
For energy ... We have to use some kind of fuel.

So how do we address our energy needs with a limitless fuel that doesn't pollute the atmosphere? The song has some suggestions:

  • Hydro, which is OK, but we've dammed every river we can.
  • Wind, this is the area that has changed the most since 1978. In 1978 the US generated less than a million kilowatt hours (kwh) of electricity with wind power. In 2009 we generated over 70 billion kwh, a growth of a factor of over 1000%. When anyone tells you that renewables can't grow fast enough to replace coal, look at utility scale wind to see what can be accomplished. The image of the wind turbine in Schoolhouse Rock looks like it belongs on a farm in 1880, not what GE and Vestas are building today.

Energy ... We're looking to try and find some new kinds.
Energy ... Exploring to try and make a new find.
Nuclear and thermal and solar,
If we miss we'll get colder and colder.
Energy ... We've gotta stop usin' you up.

This is my favorite part, because it's so totally unchanged from 1978. This video came out one year before the Three Mile Island accident, which ended the building spree of nuclear power plants in the U.S. We keep hearing about a resurgence of nuclear, but the fundamental problems still exist: no one knows what to do with the waste and the plants are tremendously expensive to build. There are some interesting ideas, like TerraPower. This company, funded in part by Bill Gates, has an idea that would allow them to burn unprocessed uranium, which is much more plentiful and less expensive than the enriched uranium that is used in today's nuclear reactors. It would still produce radioactive waste, but less of it per kwh. It also would produce plutonium, which is easier to make into a bomb than uranium. It would also cost even more to build these plants than today's reactors, though it might cost less to operate them.

Geothermal remains an interesting idea, but it has only grown from 5 billion kwh in 1980 to 15 billion kwh in 2009. The technology has remained basically unchanged during that time: find a place underground where there is hot water, bring that hot water from underground to the surface, use the heat to run a steam turbine, send the warm water back underground. An interesting idea that could lead to an explosion in geothermal is referred to as dry geothermal or engineered geothermal: cool water is pumped down to hot dry rocks and then brought back up to run a steam turbine. One company working on this is AltaRock. The idea is sound and the amount of energy in hot, dry rocks is enormous. Also, unlike wind and solar, geothermal can be run like a natural gas plant and turned on and off as needed. There is one little problem, but hopefully they'll figure out how to build these systems without causing too many earthquakes.

Solar is the energy source most of us think of in terms of limitless potential. There's enough energy from the sun to provide for all of our energy needs, and the cost is dropping fast. Still, while wind provided about 70 billion kWh in the U.S. last year, solar provided less than one billion kWh, though that might change quickly. Hundreds of megawatts of large solar plants are being built, mainly in southern California. These plants can generate a large amount of electricity at a reasonable cost and timed well to meet California's peak demand on hot days. There are also a number of companies working on smaller systems, including Stirling Engines, Concentrated Photovoltaic and Thin Film PV. It's impossible to say what will or won't work, but there is an amazing amount of potential for improvements in solar power. My expectation is that solar will grow faster in the next twenty years than wind has in the previous 20.

But we need to grasp the size of the problem. In 2009 the U.S. used almost 2,700 billion kWh of energy generated in convention thermal plants (i.e. coal and natural gas). It will take a long time and a lot of money to replace all of those billions of kWh.

So don't be cross when momma says turn that extra light out.
Just turn it off till we find us a fuel that never runs out.
If everyone tries a bit harder,
Our fuel will go farther and farther.
Energy ... We're gonna be stretchin' you out.

Andy Silber is a astrophysicist, engineer, project manager, husband, father, and energy activist living in Seattle. Visit Andy's blog on Sustainable West Seattle. The author's opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the 1Sky campaign.
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