Energy in a Real World
R. F. Mueller
(Please note, the author died November 2nd, 2011. The feedback form now goes to his son, Gus. Read Robert Mueller's obituary.)
Here we explore an approach to energy that arises out of Nature itself and which defines the limits of compatible energy interactions with that Nature.
There are two aspects of energy that may influence the direction of society. One is always before us in the news of technology, popular science and politics, while the other is confined to chemical and physical research ; theory and interpreting the behavior of individual machines, but usually has little direct influence on politics and society.
In the first and most familiar aspect of energy, what looms large is the magnitude of our dependence on it, its availability, and whether it is "clean" or "dirty." In popular science and technology both our boogiemen and heroes tend to be physicists, ranging from nuclear to solar electric, and we either fear them or enshrine them as civilization's saviors. Above all, we want them to supply us with, if not boundless energy, at least ample amounts and of such cleanliness as to do away with much of the pollution that now stems from this source. The prevalent belief , and one encouraged by scientists, is that most of the problems inherent in energy production and use are soluble. In the words of Cambel ( Physics Today, 23, 38,1970 ):
"The solution to the conflict between energy and the environment must not be in curtailing energy supply, but in reducing the irreversible and dissipative effects when we convert and consume energy."
The major thesis of the material on this web site is that there is a fundamental contradiction in Cambel's statement and in the dominant view of energy, not only by society quite generally, but among our most respected scientific experts as well.
In exploring the second aspect of energy, what first comes to mind is classical thermodynamics, a science that arose out of the industrial revolution and which determines what is possible and impossible in energy transformations, so that no chemical reaction or industrial process that violates its laws can take place. The great success of thermodynamics, as usually employed, is in the treatment of individual chemical reactions, machines or industrial processes. But it is also of great value in treating both small and large natural phenomena such as are part of sciences such as geology, astronomy and biology . Despite this great utility, it is curious that this discipline has, with very few exceptions, not been employed in the environmental sciences to study large scale phenomena, such as energy dissipation and pollution.. The thermodynamic criteria that are so successfully applied to individual chemical reactions or machines are usually deemed not applicable to large scale technological processes embodying many reactions or machines. Closely related to this problem is the basic nature of pollution, or-as discussed in the papers presented here- the common feature that all pollutants share, namely, their free energy content, which is always in excess of that borne by their degradation products.
These attitudes toward energy and pollution arise out the hubris of scientists and technologists and the wishful optimism of a society used to having its every whim of self-indulgence satisfied. There is clearly a feedback from the latter to the former that debases scientific impartiality and has generated an unreal belief system of values. The mindset of many physicists is a focus on the accomplishment of research objectives through the use of unlimited energy resources without consideration of the dissipation mode of this energy beyond safety considerations. Thus, the impressive skill with which large pulses of energy are manipulated in theoretical equations and in sub-atomic experiments, for example, as well as cheering by an admiring public, lulls both practitioners and observers into an at least subconscious belief in the possibility of essentially unlimited energy control. This is largely a consequence of ignoring thermodynamics and failing to make the true connection between energy and pollution. In many ways thermodynamics is a "bad news science" that is easy to ignore in our blindly optimistic society.
The failure to "face-up" is not only an attribute of rabid technological optimists and an uninformed public, but includes most environmentalists as well. Some organizations, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sierra Club, employ experts on the impact of energy on the environment. Comprised largely of physicists, these experts have done valuable work in documenting and drawing attention to the negative effects of energy use and in urging conservation of resources. However, they have also strongly promoted technological solutions to life style- induced environmental problems that are intended to allow the offending life style to continue undiminished or even increase in intensity. Unfortunately this is done without thorough total energy inventories and specifically without regard to ultimate energy dissipation. An example is the promotion of "clean" cars, which feature high fuel mileages and low emissions of tailpipe pollutants, but which are not monitored for total energy and resource consumption and disposal, including production and ultimate wear-out.
The argument presented here, that attempts to expose the superficial treatment of energy in our society, is largely based on thermodynamics. However, perceptive non-scientific readers will readily follow the argument intuitively. To such readers it will be readily apparent that an approach to any factor such as energy that ignores a large sector of its operation is likely to fail. In an analogy, money spent to buy goods, may have many ramifications beyond the purchase, such as credit interest, tax repercussions and inheritance complications. Like energy also, the disposition of money is fraught with uncertainty, and much of it is beyond our control, unless we decide to spend more money on financial advice, for example, but which may lead further into an endless chain of such "controls." A safe assumption is that no event ever truly ends, and a conservative (conservation!) approach is the best policy in the long run
There are many specific manifestations of narrow and erroneous thinking regarding energy in practical affairs. It takes little imagination to visualize the terrible destructiveness of Mountain Top Removal/Valley Fill coal mining, in which whole mountain tops are removed to get at coal and the resulting unusable rock and soil are dumped into adjacent stream valleys, with consequent destruction of the stream, elimination of species and widespread pollution. It is much more difficult to assess the impacts of Wind Energy, in which windmill towers are erected on mountain tops and other high wind areas. Although coal-fired power plants emit many pollutants and result in much environmental degradation in addition to that from mining coal, they produce much power per plant. On the other hand, while wind power appears at first glance to be far cleaner than that from coal, the output of power per generating unit is small and many towers and a large infrastructure of lines and roads are required to produce as much power as a coal-fired plant. Also, the high wind areas required are usually in prime wildlife habitat and on bird and bat migration routes. To my knowledge no one has ever attempted a detailed and quantitative comparison of all the ecological, environmental and energy factors involved per unit of coal and wind power produced. Such a comparison may in fact not be feasible given the long term effects on ecological and environmental factors. Even if wind power does prove to have at lower environmental impact than that derived from burning coal, as seems likely, its use would still encourage the continuation of a destructive life style and more consumption of energy of all types.
In another example Willie Nelson promotes "biodiesel" fuel, largely composed of soy bean oil, as an environmentally friendly substitute for petroleum-based diesel fuel. What Willie forgets or doesn't know is that soy bean acreage consumes large tracts of the richest natural habitat. For example, many soy bean fields were once lush flood plain forests vital to wildlife, and the destruction of these forests caused a crash in bird populations. The widespread substitution of biodiesel fuel for petrochemicals would place further strain on this habitat, which in many areas has already been diminished by 90 percent. Additionally, farming consumes many petroleum-based products such as pesticides and herbicides, the use of which would only be increased by switching to biodiesel fuel. He would do far better to encourage a change in dietary habits, the substitution of soy beans, corn and other vegetable products for meat. The direct consumption of these products, in addition to health benefits, would have as much as a ten to one advantage over feeding them to livestock in terms of savings of energy, water and other supplies. Thus, far fewer soy beans than those now utilized as livestock feed would be required to feed a human population that is now fed on meat. Also, under such a regimen, growing soy beans for biodiesel fuel would be more justified. The environmental benefits of such a program would be enormous and far exceed those derived from a switch to biodiesel fuel alone. Under such a program it might even be possible to restore much of the natural habitat previously lost.
Energy in the Environment and the Second Law of Thermodynamics - The hope of greatly increased efficiency in energy control is a vain one and its futility stems directly from the second law of thermodynamics. (NASA Document X-644-72-130, May 1972.)
Thermodynamics of Environmental Degradation - Environmental degradation today has assumed the magnitude of planetary processes such as geologic erosion or the atmospheric circulation. (NASA Document X-644-71-121, March 1971.)
Energy Alternatives to Nuclear Power: a Case Study - Looking into the Douglas Point Nuclear Plant proposed for the Washington, DC area in the early 1970s. (NASA Document X-644-73-205, July 1973.)
What is Environmental Thermodynamics? - Which breathlessly-mentioned solutions to our environmental crisis really make sense?
How Technology Defeats Itself Through the Rumford Effect - Named for a loyalist physicist of revolutionary days who noticed that when cannon were bored frictional heat was produced equivalent in amount to the input of mechanical energy from the boring machine.
Is it Possible to Control Pollution? - The concepts of "soft" and "hard" energy paths have no meaning in a thermodynamic sense.
The Threat to Ecosystems and Human Survival and What Can be Done - There is a political inertia that encourages pandering to a populace that maintains a highly wasteful and self-indulgent lifestyle. We may hope that the inherent logic of the needed reforms will prevail as conditions worsen.