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Week of 23 May 2022: Energy Security

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If you have read this column for any length of time, I am about to repeat something you have heard before.

I am always in favor of removing obsolete and unused equipment quickly with one glaring exception.

That exception is this: power plants. Be they oil, gas, coal, biomass or anything else (well, maybe not recovery boilers), unused power assets should be carefully mothballed. For what is out of favor now could quickly be back in favor soon.

In my fifty-two plus years in industry, I have seen this happen over and over. Sometimes coal fired assets should be demolished, but that is for a surprising reason. That reason is that they are so old and so manual labor centric that the cost of operating them under almost any condition is prohibitive due to their labor intensity.

Electricity is not the be all and end all to our energy needs. Granted, the popular press and many researchers today are focused on electricity, but that doesn't make it the grand and final solution.

An aside. There is a general fallacy when it comes to technological and societal development which has been formally documented many times and informally documented continuously. That fallacy is this: what we know right now, what we understand right now, is believed to be the apex of humankind's understanding of the world in which we live.

Totally false and easily proven to be false. Take any time in the past, including just last week. We collectively know more this week than we did last week. We will collectively know more next week than we do this week. Not convinced? Look at what we knew, two years ago, compared to what we know today.

The great unknown at all times and in all places is our lack of imagination and perspicacity.

Hence, we just think that electricity is the ultimate end game in energy solutions. A breakthrough development tomorrow could obsolesce every windmill, every solar panel, on the face of the earth. All we lack, once again, is imagination and perspicacity.

A quick story. When I was a young engineering student, and I mean very young, I was disappointed to discover that "modern" coal fired generating plants merely boiled water, made steam and used it to power large mechanical turbine--generator sets.

I had assumed in this modern age (1968) that somehow such power stations took the coal apart, at the atomic level, thus releasing the electrons needed for electrical production. Quite frankly, ever since then, and I have been in plenty of power houses, I have always been disappointed that they are essentially using 3,000-year-old technology, only slightly updated.

So, I await the young whippersnapper who will lead us from this technological darkness in which we reside. Electricity may not be the final solution.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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