Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Clueless Majority

Listening to public radio allows me to get some idea of just how clueless even respectable journalists and leaders are. In a recent interview with Robert Bryce author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence, Leonard Lopate asked why hydrogen wasn't a viable "alternative fuel" since, according to Leonard, "it's just water." No, Leonard, hydrogen is not water; it's hydrogen, the easiest lay on the periodic table. Hydrogen is just a proton with an electron and as such readily bonds to form other stuff. Nearly all the hydrogen on this planet is locked up with oxygen in the form of water. Freeing that proton-electron combo means carving it off an existing molecule (usually water) and that takes energy. We get some of that energy back when we shove the hydrogen back together with oxygen to form water again. But there's no free lunch. We had to burn some energy to get the hydrogen in the first place, then we get a fraction of that energy back when we lock the hydrogen back into combination with another element. No energy is "produced"; it's merely carried. The original energy came from whatever was burned in the first place to free the hydrogen. It's an energy shell game with a significant net loss. You'd have been better off just burning the original fuel for mechanical energy instead of splitting water molecules, storing hydrogen and then recombining it with oxygen.

In my experience the general populace does equate "hydrogen power" with simply "burning" water. They figure that our modern whiz-bang technology can squeeze Nature's energy bounty out of all that useless sea water we have lying around the planet's surface. As friend Jim Kunstler puts it, they conflate technology with energy. Technology doesn't produce energy; it depends on it. There is no magic way to "burn" water and keep America's 200 million cars running 50 miles each per day. I reiterate for the physics-illiterate: Hydrogen is not water; it's hydrogen and in this context (split from oxygen then joined again) it's just an energy carrier. The energy is released by something else (usually fossil fuels) and the hydrogen acts as a way to store it. Hydrogen, like electricity, is an energy "carrier." Those who fail to understand this tend to be the same ones who are outraged--absolutely miffed--that those evil oil companies are preventing the development of the rainbow-and-hearts hydrogen economy that will save us all and make driving as cheap as dreaming. If hydrogen were only horses, these ignoramuses would ride.

In an interview on the BBC World News Kofi Annan remarked that Africa needed a "green revolution." Mr. Annan joins the list of people who really ought to know better but don't. He understands that this simply means injecting fossil fuel-based fertilizers into the ground and make agriculture into industrial agriculture. So he understands too that high-priced fossil fuels are needed to boost food production and that the escalating costs of fossil fuels are what is driving up food costs in the first place..? His comment reminds me of Steve Martin's advice on how to get a million dollars and not pay any taxes. First... get a million dollars... How to reduce food prices? By increasing food production by using high-priced fossil fuels which are driving up food prices in the first place? It's like cutting a foot off the bottom of a sheet and sewing it back to the top to make the sheet longer. Food prices are up in large part because food production everywhere has been as good as it has for the past hundred years because of fossil fuel-based fertilizers. Modern food production is an industrial process whose bounty relies directly on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel prices and therefore food prices are on the rise because supplies of fossil fuel are permanently declining (and what's left requires more energy to get because we literally have to dig deeper and deeper for it) while demand in the form of industrializing populations (two billion east and south Asians--the growing middle class in China and India) is rapidly growing.

There is no easy fix to hunger in poor nations, a disproportionate number of which lie in Africa. Poor nations simply will drop out of the bidding for food as fuel prices are driven up by increased demand in China an India. Africa will have to starve. We won't be dropping dead from hunger here in the U.S. quite yet, but our oil-dependent economy and way of life will take a hit. Most of the places we've built in this country will simply become useless. Our infrastructure is set up with the expectation of cheap oil supplies keeping things moving over vast distances. I've heard very few voices in the media explaining these two unassailable facts: starvation will absolutely ravage the swollen populations of the poorest countries and most of the built environment in the U.S. will be summarily junked.