NPR logo A Big Decision: When The Price Of Energy Becomes Apparent

A Big Decision: When The Price Of Energy Becomes Apparent

Massive Oil Slick Reaches Louisiana Gulf Coast i

The water is colored with chemical dispersant as part of efforts to contain the massive oil spill on May 5, 2010 in Breton and Chandeleur sounds off the coast of Louisiana. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Massive Oil Slick Reaches Louisiana Gulf Coast

The water is colored with chemical dispersant as part of efforts to contain the massive oil spill on May 5, 2010 in Breton and Chandeleur sounds off the coast of Louisiana.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There was a time when energy and waste was a personal affair.  For most of human history (and prehistory) our use of energy remained largely a small-scale affair –- wood set alight at home and used for heating and cooking.

The waste generated by that energy consumption was also, up to a point, a personal affair.  The wood burned and the house got smoky.  Except for cases of wholesale forest depletion, the unintended and unpleasant consequences of human energy consumption were relatively confined and relatively local.

Ah, for the good old days…

With the Deepwater Horizon rig pouring 200,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico everyday, we have, once again, been reminded that our magic, almost-Jetson lifestyles are predicated on industrial scale energy extraction technologies that create a lot of waste.

Waste can mean a lot of things but today let’s just focus on the mess and ugliness, things you don’t want to look at, things you wouldn’t want in your backyard.  Even in this limited definition of waste, we are talking loosely about the second law of thermodynamics. 

They should really start teaching the second law of thermodynamic in kindergarten.  It is that important to human culture and its future.  Discovered, appropriately, at the dawn of the industrial age, the second law tells us that converting energy into work always (always! always! always!) leaves some mess in the process.  We could spend days examining the consequences of the second law for an energy intensive society (greenhouse gases for one) but, today, I just want to consider the way we in the “developed” nations have hidden this waste. 

The gunk and goo, the ominous flames and acrid fumes usually happen someplace else.  You drive past them or fly over them or see them on the news when something goes terribly wrong. 

Fossil fuels storage mode —  being an inherently chemical energy —  appear to be particularly gunk/goo/fume oriented.  Thus, as the oil from the BP leak creates a black river on the surface of the Gulf we all turn to the hope of green energy.

But that’s when our ship of hope runs aground of Cape Cod.

It took nine years and an effort worthy of Hercules to get permits for a wind turbine farm off the Massachusetts coast.  Critics continue to resist the very visible turbines for reasons ranging from the Endangdered Species Act to a desire to preserve pristine ocean views.

I am watching a similar battle occur here in upstate New York as planned wind farms move forward.  Spoiled views are also a form of waste; they too are part of the second law of thermodynamics.

“Resistance to an energy technology is inversely proportional to how close it is to becoming a reality,” goes an old saying. 

There is, in other words, no free lunch. 

From gulf oil to Cape Cod wind farms, from new nuclear power plants to giant electric panel grids, we are going to have to face a dizzying array of choices very soon if we want to keep the lights on to the extent they have been blazing for the last 100 years. 

It’s time for all of us to look in the mirror.

How prepared are we, individually, to face up to the waste, gunk, goo, noise and spoiled views that must come with keeping those lights blazing?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.