environment & naturetechnology

Powering a flat earth

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Thank you, Mr President. You put the case fairly and well although if you really want to impress you might find an audience a bit more seasoned and a bit less willing to roll over and have their tummies rubbed. You have split your hand and doubled down on Green Alternative Energy so you must be holding at least twenty. Now it’s time to turn all the cards. I hope the White House searchbots have been comprehensive and found the odd moments when I Hoped to Believe in the Change you have promised but on the big question of how we power our modern world, yes, I have been a detractor. Your well documented expertise in engineering and physics should have given me caution but let my indictment show that I have also been fair, once in a while. Once in a very great while.

One incident that may not be captured since my support came only in a few comments here and there, is on this question of algae. Oh, that Newt had a field day with that one, didn’t he? And I was saddened to see those ignorant, giggling attacks take their toll. You seem to have given up on pond slime and the slime-based community but you did so too quickly, sir. Whatever big-headed adviser slipped that note into your palm with the one scribbled word…. ALGAE! was not a traitor, imbecile or Koch-brother and should be released from confinement immediately. Algae, or aqua-cultured bio-diesel may turn out to be a joke but it has not yet. It at least has the possibility of freeing us from ethanol which burns our food (or the food of Mexicans) to no good effect; is scalable and has the advantages of liquid handling over dry. Gingrich shows an almost Alinskyite joy in his opportunistic mockery but perhaps he is still feeling the sting from when you rubbished his own far-looking but far from absurd proposal for lunar mining and power. Hopefully that bit of blowback and mutual bruising will encourage a more frank discussion on these matters, something, as you say, we need most desperately.

As a pre-teen subscriber to Popular Science and a youthful library lay-about I have been following these developments for many years. When you were in your fine, Hawaiian prep school I languished in the public system but even there we knew the promise of Alternative Power. Solar and wind and a few also-rans would let us thumb our noses at those Ayatollahs good and proper! But forty years of cover stories and massive subsidies have produced barely a trickle of energy that could get one to school (although I walked) or heat my sister’s curling iron. Certainly you have noticed this. Yes, a spike in those subsidies…. a Green Power Surge was a plausible path when you entered office but no one now disputes that those funds and the billions preceding them have produced some impressive growth in the massage industry and top shelf liquor sales but NO conspicuous breakthroughs however generous the terms or promising the technology. And it is the same in the Green paradise of Europe as it is here in the bleak fields of Troglodytic America. The long range forecast has been accurate; no sun, no wind.

But you strike a chord, sir. No, I would not want to go down in history as the man who kept Columbus on the dock, although I find this respect and admiration for Columbus’ accomplishments an odd phenomenon in your constituents. They are generally down on The Admiral, but we are casting away our old prejudices. If a gym full of Occupiers can cheer the discovery of America, what can be called impossible? What follows is no new information or thoughts and the prescriptions are not even mine though I will put them forward without meticulous checking since your declamations on President Hayes show that you did likewise. Let the chips fall where they will and if Secretary Chu is hiring, I am available.

From my cave on the flattened earth I denounced solar given it’s triple vulnerability to weather, dust accumulations and that daily bugbear of man, the sun’s rise from its birth as a flaming chariot in the east and its sizzling death in the extinguishing seas of the west. But I did not look far. Is it really, automatically beyond the strength of man to halt the sun at high noon? We should not laugh at that, as you say. The issue may be less the technology of halting Ra at his peak but more a political one as some parts of earth will have full daylight, some will be trapped eternally at four in the afternoon and some unlucky buggers will be cast into eternal night. As the most powerful nation on earth I think it is plain we will settle the sun in the Central Time Zone putting the Maritime Provinces in a jolly, permanent two pm, California at ten and Alaska will thaw in a 24 hour waking time. Surely these adjustments will be tricky but worth it to rid ourselves once and for all of our addiction to foreign fossil fuels. And Russia will just have to throw on a sweater.

Still we deal with weather and dust. Dust is a great problem where solar seems most promising; in deserts where abrasive sand may be driven at high speeds for long periods not just blotting the sun but wrecking these contraptions that are largely glass. We could put solar panels above the dust on mountain tops but the punishing winds will destroy them. If only there were a site beyond dust and weather where there already IS an eternal noon. I recall something in the few books at my young disposal called “orbit“, a concept I never could quite get my head around. It makes no sense unless the earth is a sphere or at least a cube which is balderdash. How could it just hang in the ether? In any case, if there WERE this fantasyland where there is no weight and no storm we can not access it as the President, most wisely, has cancelled the expensive hoax known as the Space Shuttle.

Instead let us harness those buffeting winds. It wouldn’t be the first time. Wind, after Fire, may be our most developed technology. In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, it was not with a trireme galley of slave rowers. No, it was not a quadrarime or septarime though these were the mightiest ships of antiquity. His fleet was wind powered. Its only carbon emissions came from the lungs of its skillful sailors and they would have been breathing on shore anyhow so the net is ZERO! our collective goal. But as I mentioned, wind has issues that turned me like a groundhog who has seen his terrible shadow. There is the titanic expense of erecting these pinwheels with fancy dynamos as their axles. There is the problem that the most reliable winds are far from power consumers and not all that reliable, as it turns out. We return to that near-hero of the Republic, T. Boone Pickens who had a plan to save the nation the way Warren Buffett has saved industry; by dominating a fixed market. Did Pickens claim to bridle the wild winds? Nope, rather he cornered the more tractable natural gas market. The problems of rectifying the power coming from hundreds of finicky turbines and delivering it, on demand, to thousands of capricious homes were to be spackled over with gas driven turbines mated to wind driven generators vastly increasing the price (and market value) of both. Genius indeed. But T. Boone reckoned without the unexpected. He got frakked good and hard, that new technology making his long position on natural gas futures an asset bomb. He lost his shirt, though I think he has another, as gas prices have collapsed throwing a broomstick into the turbine business that cannot be shrugged off like an errant condor. Pickens cancelled his giant order with China for giant rotor blades and even those thousands delivered sit, unprotected, in Texas fields, awaiting someone with a dollar and a fleet of oversized diesel powered haulers to take them to some useful purpose.

I have neither the carriage nor the dollar but I do have a way to make wind power, if not commercially viable, at least able to deliver a bit of  electricity ON DEMAND, which is the only way it is helpful. The hurdles are manifold but largely owing to the peculiarities of the phantom we call electricity. I hear the objections… what the hell do YOU know about it, English-Lit boy? And it is a good question but since the President also lacks a degreed foundation in science I will take my right to speak in ignorance as much as he. The spinning bird-beaters are an impressive sight, those blades being ninety feet or more but the true marvel lies within. It is the hub that is the nub. Each turbine has its own generator at the top of its stalk and this is a high-tech gadget because it must be relatively light to be hoisted up, up, up twenty stories or more, and this in remote and undeveloped regions. To achieve that goal the wind engineers must employ elements that are rare on our flat earth; rare flat-earth elements they call them and they come principally from our frenemy, China. But even with all this high-expense high technology we have a problem. The winds, no less than the sun (for now) are not at our command. We need a medium of storage. The Chevy Volt was considered an answer to that, feeding on current opportunistically that was not being used, buffering the calamitous spikes and troughs from intermittent power; managing the erratic flow into a gentle stream and then carting the family breadwinner to the cabbage fields. That hasn’t worked out and our ancient servant/master, Fire, has in part been the culprit. So here is the solution though it will turn wind on its head.

The high deserts and savanna are NOT well suited to wind power not least because they lack human customers. Rather let us go back to the languishing rustbelt, not because Pennsylvanian ingenuity will develop practical power storage and rectification but because it already has. We pick up the scraps of Pickens’ dream for a song and hike with them off to locales where towns draped in coal tailings and malaise sit comatose. Erect those erections in the vales and on the mountains where below are miles upon miles of abandoned mines. Instead of a weighty, expensive, fragile generator with a brief service life, instead in the hub of every turbine is a simple, single-valve pump attached to the whirling dervish. And what does it pump? Air. Yes, garden variety air will be driven down the pressurized stem of the windmill with the lazy flump of an elephant’s ear; down, down into the ground where the massive useless volumes of obsolete mines will serve as gigantic reservoirs of power; essentially turning the variable winds into a single powerful stream, switched on and off with a tap as power must be. The pressures must be kept low which is why the reservoirs must be gigantic, but these, unlike the technology for wind-farm rectification, already exist. Likewise the customers for that power already exist in place. Leakage? Again that is why it is a low-pressure system but yes there will be unseen leaks in the ancient mining tunnels so part of the installation and maintenance requires injections of radioactive gas of one sort or another, much like isotopes used in radiological medicine. This will expose those troublesome cracks which will be plugged with high pressure injections of very wet concrete until the gieger counter stops ticking. The power will be drawn off by a turbine or several, fed with the flow of stored atmosphere without heat waste. A similar concept can be used with off-shore implacements (if their subsonic noise pollution didn’t harrass the whales, not that I care) where sea water will be pumped into improvised reservoirs in tidal basins and released for hydro-style generation; these necessarily massive constructions will also serve as sea walls, improving ports or even creating new ones. Does that sound grandiose? Well, Mr President, I thought we were admonished to Think Big.

The fringe benefits of the air-reserve system are also intriguing. There could be pressure taps anywhere along the line. You might have your own generator producing power to your own specifications. Would you like to abandon Tesla’s alternating current and go to Edison’s direct current running your laptop off of a plug in the wall? You could well do so. Electric cars, by the way, also charge from DC. Power losses to transmission will be vastly curtailed and they are enormous. In Scranton industrial equipment could be run WITHOUT electricity, drawing rotational power straight from the pneumatic well. Householders could have a direct feed of pneumatic power, silent and unending. Metering? Not a problem. A simple flow meter which, again, is a well-tried technology, does the trick.

I’m sure your experts, Mr President, can tell you if there is worth or not in these projects. I defer to the greater wisdom of your crowd as opposed to mine but please keep in mind, whatever the value or lack is contained in my vapid daydreams, here on the flat earth we also occasionally gaze at the stars inquisitively, and long to see the scaffolding on which they are hung.

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One Response to “Powering a flat earth”

  1. I chuckled at your description of the wind turbines in the Rust Belt.

    This was the image it conjured up:

    It’s from the opening of the movie WALL•E, a rather happy dystopian future (and a charming love story to boot). Perhaps President Obama and company seek a happy dystopia for us — but I am not feeling the love.

    Best wishes.

    ===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

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