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Why should I save energy?

Week of 29 Mar 10

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Here in the United States, freedom of speech is an important right. It works like this: We have a right to say what we feel, without retribution, as long as it does not cause a crisis. The example goes this way: you can say what you want about the government, but you cannot yell "Fire!" in a theatre if there is no fire.

Most of my adult life I have heard the mantra, "We have to save energy!" I have never heard anyone provide a meaningful reason (or a "why") we should save energy. Without the "why" this is as irresponsible as yelling "fire" in the theatre. In other words, there have been many irresponsible comments, mandates and cultural attitudes built around the idea of saving energy. The absence of the "why" is very curious.

A socio-political "why" is to do something else with it. For instance, if energy usage were a real crisis and I were king, no one would travel to see a sporting event or for any recreational activity--we would save this travel energy to use working. Others would have the opposite reaction. I have never heard such choices discussed anywhere, but I am sure we all have opinions on these.

One reason to save energy, a good one, is because it makes economic sense. However, the kinds of paybacks one often sees on energy projects make no sense at all. Over thirty years ago, when I was a young engineer at that famous soap company in Cincinnati, Ohio, I took an in-house engineering economics course on paybacks (I had already taken one in college; engineering economics has been one of my favorite topics in my professional life, too). In this course, we were told a deep, dark secret: if a project did not have a payback of less than 3 years, it was not worth doing. It did not make any difference what the project was, over 3 years it was a "no go."

Many energy projects we read about today, especially at the consumer level, have paybacks all the way up to ten years or even more. Why on earth would you ever do one of these? Do people really think we are going to run out of energy? If so, they have not thought much about the subject.

I view energy sources in three categories: immediate, mid-term, and long term. Let's think about these for a moment.

Immediate sources are going to be used or not used right now. If they are not used, they cannot be stored and are lost forever. These include water pouring over a dam, thermal springs, wind, sunlight, landfill methane and tides. Whether one uses them or not, one cannot save them (however, they can be used in the here and now to substitute for other forms that can be saved and stored).

Mid-term sources can be saved for some time, but ultimately deteriorate and become useless. These include wood chips, ethanol, diesel, fuel oil, sugar cane stalks, and so forth.

Long term sources can be saved for later use and include uranium, coal, in-situ oil and in-situ natural gas.

Imagine if your house was hooked to a wind turbine. When the turbine is running, you might as well turn on every appliance you have. Saving energy is a nonsensical activity in this set of conditions. Much of what we do on a macro level falls in this same category.

In reality, energy research is still in the dark ages and we are focusing on the wrong things. Take electricity production. Every way we know how to make electricity in commercial quantities (except for solar cells and small capacity fuel cells) involves directly or indirectly harnessing a gas (wind, steam, natural thermal) or a liquid (hydropower) which is then shoved through some sort of blade set which turns a rotor inside a stator to produce electricity via electromagnetic principles. An even more archaic (and more inefficient way) to make electricity is to use an internal combustion engine. All of these methods incur double digit efficiency loses at the point of generation, and hence the point of generation is the biggest economic opportunity (the theoretical maximum efficiency of a wind turbine, Betz' Law, is 59%). Efficiency improvements at the consumption end of the chain are peanuts compared to the losses at the production end.

Why can't we directly turn a fuel into electricity without all the mechanical rotating parts? Is anyone researching letting the wind blow between some static plates and creating an electrical differential? How about turning uranium directly into loose electrons we can shove down a wire? Anyone working on that? Directly turning an energy source from one form into another is the enlightened path to real energy savings (and pollution control, too). Solve this problem and US oil imports drop by at least half overnight.

In the meantime, do not be sucked into saving energy for the sake of saving energy. Such an idea makes no sense on any level. Always ask why, and if the answer is not an economic one, at least make an informed decision on whatever other objectives you choose. This applies at home as well as at work.

Speaking of energy, I recently was studying lightning strikes and human fatalities related to them. Summer is the most likely season for being struck by lightning. According to the National Lightning Safety Institute, the number one state in the US for lightning deaths is Florida, but they have occurred in every state except Alaska and Hawaii, totaling 756 since 1990.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

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