April 19, 2006

The Perfect Swarm

Hatched by Dafydd

Captain Ed has up a fascinating post on an issue near and dear to our reptillian hearts: the future of energy production.

The good captain quotes from an article by Anne Applebaum at the WaPo, as we in “the business” call the Washington Post (actually, I’m not in “the business;” but the Post has given me the business many times). She notes an interesting phenomenon: anti-nuclear, anti-coal, and anti-oil activists appear to have merged and metastisized into generic anti-energy fanatics... so much so that they now attack even alternative sources of energy: solar, biomass or biofuels, indeed everything that could possibly make any physical object move, shake, or create anything.

Even wind power, which used to be the ultimate dream of "environmentalists." Her clever title, "Tilting At Windmills," perfectly encapsulates both the insanity and futility of the New Luddites.

One “wind-power executive” has even coined a new term to describe this rage against the machine -- any machine. Riffing off the well-known “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard), the exec calls this new madness BANANAism: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

It’s a fit acronym, as it no longer seems to matter what sort of energy-producing facility one proposes or where it is to be built; activists will swarm in to attack from all four corners of the globe (in their flat-Earth, “globes” have corners).

Captain Ed, as usual, does a bravura job of covering the substance, those who reflexively oppose any form of generating energy... though he focuses on power generation itself. There are other aspects that also deserve mention: the motivation behind the Luddites, alternative solutions that could be pursued, and of especial interest to Big Lizards, how it all plays out in the electoral arena half a year hence.

So let's dive right in.

Motivation of the BANANAmites

This is actually the easiest question to answer, because it hasn't really changed since dim Ned Ludd was appropriated by the Luddites as a pretext to smash the looms.

Technological advance means change. The prospect of change produces raw terror in many people.

Robert Anton Wilson divides the entire world into neophobes and neophiles; the former, those who fear the new, can become Luddites at the extremes: people who attempt to destroy technology in order to arrest Time. We've all known people who are afraid to touch a computer, for example; every technological advance -- cars, telephones, microwave ovens -- is fought by some of the more extreme neophobes.

However, starting in the late 1960s, the New Left allied itself with the environmentalist movement sparked by such fearmongers as Ralph Nader, Barry Commoner, Rachel Carson, and so forth.

Some of this anti-technology activism was probably driven by a phobic fear of nuclear catastrophe left over from the 1950s... "phobic" because it found expression in irrational ways, such as demanding unconditional American surrender, unilateral disarmament (same thing), or in a wild example from my own alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, student followers of Dr. Helen Caldicott who demanded that the university stock enough suicide pills for the entire student body.

UCSC was supposed to dispense these suicide pills to anyone who asked (student, staff, faculty), in the event some terrible calamity occured that drove simpletons to believe that nuclear attack was imminent -- such as the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 for example (after which, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its "doomsday clock" hands to one minute before midnight). After all, in such a dreaded nuclear exchange, "the survivors would envy the dead!"

But in the late 1960s, the wacko environmentalists lay with the Neo-Stalinist Left of Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and that lot; the fruit of that unnatural congress was a Democratic Party almost pathologically opposed to any new technology. Especially energy production, which the New Environmentalist Left rightly understood to underpin all technology. They turned the planet into a goddess, Gaea/Gaia, and literally began worshipping Her.

(The neopagan movement took off about this same time, ten years or so after Gerald Gardner invented or revived Wicca and around the time the Reformed Druids of North America were formed.)

That is where we're at now: even Democrats who have drifted back towards the center -- after their halcyon university days, when they were screaming in the streets -- are made terribly uncomfortable by even the thought of energy production of any kind. They envision a pastoral Eden, where everyone lives in the back of the woods, and little, furry animals hop up and munch granola out of the Democrats' hands. It is a mythical world where there is no industry at all -- but where the fruits of such industry are omnipresent.

It's all very Randroid, as Ayn Rand described (and decried) in Atlas Shrugged. You should read it; it pretty much covers the whole "motivation" topic better than I can (among other reasons, because even I can't write a 300,000-word blogpost!) Instead, we move on to....

Aggressively high-tech conservationism

While we completely support increased power generation -- pumping more domestic oil, more refineries, more nuclear plants, even such long-term goals as orbital solar-power satellites, which is the ultimate solution -- there is another tack to take while fighting against the New Luddites: that is to aggressively develop methods of dramatic energy savings, using our advanced technological edge over the rest of the world.

We've already been doing this. Computers use far less energy now than they did twenty or thirty years ago. This trend should continue as smaller and smaller chips are used... or even some computing medium other than silicon.

But we need to do the same for larger types of machinery. For example, we've already talked here about switching from the internal combusion engine (both in cars and in electrical generators) to a high-temperature ceramic engine that would burn gasoline at 5,000ºF, rather than the paltry 1,350ºF the typical ICE uses now. That could result in a huge increase in gasoline mileage without any corresponding drop in available power and acceleration. See The Wishing Ring, part 2 and Wanted: High-Efficiency Gasoline Engine X-Prize.

Other techniques include some sort of flywheel to absorb and "store" the forward momentum of a car: as the car brakes, much of the decelerative force comes from spinning up the flywheel, rather than applying brake pads. The linear momentum is transferred to angular momentum, rather than being dissipated as waste heat. When the light turns green and you start out again, much of your acceleration is imparted from the flywheel, spinning it back down again.

The result is to significantly mitigate the gigantic energy loss that occurs in stop-and-go driving, where you just build up a good head of steam (rather, gasoline vapor), and then at the next intersection, you have to throw it all out the window. Tailpipe, whatever; you know what I mean. Less waste means more efficiency; more efficiency means more MPG.

Heat is also wasted in industrial applications. In fact, most heat is waste. Unless the heat is actually used -- to warm food or the consumers thereof, or melt metal, or something -- it's just energy in its most entropic state, energy that could have been used to move, shake, or create.

But heat can be reconverted into useful form (with a loss, of course, but less than 100%). Every factory, power plant, and transportation system should be designed to channel waste heat into some form of power-generating "rebreather"... a gas turbine, say.

We also need much better battery technology. Our current batteries are pathetic. We need batteries that weigh about what a normal car batter weighs, but which could power a vehicle at Ferrari speeds for several hundred miles (however much electricity it would take to do that). That requires fundamental physics breakthroughs in battery technology. Get cracking!

There are many other such ideas floating around:

  • Better jet transport technology;
  • Artificially intelligent cars that drive themselves faster and more efficiently;
  • Star-Trek-like "replicator" technology (which is already in progress) to manufacture material items with less wasted energy -- it takes a lot of energy to melt steel;
  • Shifting more of manufacturing to information -- a really readable, portable electronic book, for example;
  • Nanotechnology, and so forth.

Each of these requires a lot of government investment, or corporate investment with government tax incentives, because the developmental technology is expensive and the projects require years of basic scientific research. So let's pour some money into it.

And that brings us to....

The politics of it all

The rise of BANANAism within the Democratic Party has the potential to hand the election to Republicans on a silver oil-barrel. The basic political formula runs as follows:

  1. Conservative Republicans and pro-energy Democrats caucus together and come up with four or five good ideas for energy production, plus some basic research for aggressive, high-tech conservationism.

For example, increased domestic oil drilling, building more refineries, building modern, safe nuclear power plants, some shale-oil plants -- and specifically exempting these projects from the decades of environmental gridlock that are normally used to obliterate any new power plant.

  1. Republicans need to move them through committee to the floor, even if some have to be sent without recommendation.

We can't let them get bogged down by RINOs; they must go to the floor with all or nearly all the committee Republicans backing them, along with the Republican leadership. Consult with the "dirty dozen," the handful of prominent liberal Republicans and even moderate Democrats who have sometimes approved of power generation or are particularly close to industry. Make it clear this is going to the floor... where it will either be voted on or filibustered by the Democrats.

The House tends to be better about passing controversial legislation than the Senate; the Republicans in the Committee on Energy and Commercehave a six-seat majority; and one of those GOP committee members is Majority Whip Roy Blunt... the man specifically responsible for keeping Republicans in line. Presumably he would be even more effective in that task for his fellow committee members. I think the package could be pushed through committee in the House.

The Republicans on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources have a 12-10 advantage; but in addition, two of the Democrats on that committee are in tough re-election fights this year: Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and appointee Robert Menendez (D-NJ). One or both might join in a vote for energy independence, worried about being tagged as a wacko environmentalist. I think the same package could be pushed through the Senate committee, too.

  1. Then on the floor, every Republican who supports energy production gets up and denounce every Democrat voting against the package as being in thrall to "foreign oil," opposed to American industry, opposed to union workers, and wanting American drivers and consumers to be forced to pay higher prices as a way of forcing conservation by deprivation.

This especially goes for Cantwell and Menendez: if they oppose the energy bill in committee or on the floor, go after them hammer and tong: make them out to be hypocrites and spoilers. Maybe we can defeat one or both at the polls!

Fight hard to get to cloture; but even if a measure (or the whole bill) gets filibustered, that's politically all right too... so long as the ringleaders of the filibuster are clearly seen to be Democrats. We can run against them in November on that very issue.

Remind everyone of the endless gas lines of the 1970s, "odd and even days," and note that the Democrats voting against energy production want to bring those days back.

Make the election about energy production; that's an issue supported by a very healthy majority of Americans. Bring up all the stories showing that the same people who oppose gasoline refineries and nuclear power plants also oppose solar power, geothermal power, and even windmills! (You like how I neatly tied that all up?) Paint them not as "environmentalists" but as people who want America to just dry up and blow away.

And then remind voters of China... which is massively industrializing at the same time these Democrats want America to de-industrialize. Ask the Democrats, "who do you want to be the economic powerhouse of the twenty-first century: America or China?" Ask them how high they want gas prices to rise -- how much of a "tax on driving" is enough? Appeal to teamsters, manufacturers, farmers, and to soccer moms driving the carpool to school.

Make the election about energy, in addition to being about judges and about whether we're going to win in Iraq, or just call off the game and run home, like the Democrats want. Energy is something that hits home to everyone; we all use it, want it, need it. The Republicans must paint the Democrats as the the men standing in the power-plant door, saying "no, you can't have any! Go away!"

It worked in California in 2003 to oust "Grayout" Davis; there is no reason it would not work equally well in 2006. New Environmentalist Leftism is on the wane; it's time we recognized that and made energy production an integral part of the Republican campaigns for 2006 and 2008.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 19, 2006, at the time of 5:22 PM

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The following hissed in response by: F. N. Owl

My rule of thumb, on whether a new energy technology is practical, is that if no one is protesting it, it isn't practical. If environmentalists support it, it's nowhere close to being practical.

So, is win power actually practical now, or have they finally gone so nuts that my rule doesn't work any more?

The above hissed in response by: F. N. Owl [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 19, 2006 7:03 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

I understand your angle, Dafyyd... but can't we educate the Republican "Leaders" and office holders to the point where they do this because it is the right thing to do, not just because it's the way to Power? The goal is just a waypoint, but the path points to our future. (my apologies for sounding all sloganny) I would like to see us do this right so we end up CONTINUING on the right path after the short term goals are met.

I'm a big fan of de-centralizing energy production, and would LOVE IT if you could arm us with the knowledge to debate the BANANA Republic folks. Or, if you know a blog that already does so, please pass it along. I'm with you all the way on this one.

But I must counsel you against potentially wasting time on Maria Cantwell this cycle. I live in Seattle, she's my Senator... and she's much more useful as an example of Idiot Democrats than as a target for electoral defeat. Both because she gifts the National Republican Party every time she opens her mouth, as well as because the local Washington State Republican Party is as inept as the California franchise, and we have no Ahnolds here to save us. Our economy is BOOMING up here, and we just cannot talk any able candidates to run with them as the main 'support' group.

Pick your battles, it's an important war.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 19, 2006 7:07 PM

The following hissed in response by: cdquarles


WRT batteries, batteries are about 300 years old. The main limits with batteries are in electrochemistry and thermodynamics of the chemical elements and materials that are available for their construction. TANSTAAFL here, and we have improved them as much as possible with the materials available. I have not heard much lately from the high temperature superconductor ceramics that were so hot 15 or so years ago. The latest big thing that I am aware of are polymers, but these will be either petroleum based or grown from genetically engineered single celled organisms. Any breakthoughs here will be material science related (and derivatively, from chemistry...electrochemistry and physics...thermodynamics). Unlike most of the hooey that passes for science these days, chemistry and physics are by their nature grounded in the realities of life on this rock.

Personally, we should go nuclear, and use the resulting power to move from mined hydrocarbons to custom enzymatic and/or biological production. As I have stated previously, this planet is awash in hydrocarbons for a reason. One of the main ones is that hydrocarbons are easily made from low activation energy processes (which implies easy synthesis from the energetics requirements viewpoint).

The above hissed in response by: cdquarles [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 20, 2006 12:22 AM

The following hissed in response by: SDN

Actually, we know how much the elites think we should pay:

"Nonetheless, it was a bit of a shocker to see Tom Friedman, star columnist for The New York Times, actually publicly wishing for $100/barrel oil.

On the "Today" show Friedman said the following:

"I hope the Iranians get as crazy as they want. My attitude toward the president of Iran is 'You go, girl,' because the faster we get to $100 a barrel, pal, the quicker we're going to get back to $20. Because when we go to $100/barrel, then you're going to see all these people change their behavior and their oil-buying habits and their car-buying habits in a fundamental way."


The above hissed in response by: SDN [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 20, 2006 8:17 AM

The following hissed in response by: Geothermalpower

Check out this introduction article on Geothermal power:

The above hissed in response by: Geothermalpower [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2006 3:24 PM

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