The ideal political perspective seeks to preserve traditional values that positively contribute to the broad social good and to change those that become negative in the context of current realities. The latter, by their very definition, must change to accommodate changing realities in positive and productive ways. Some liberals, especially the most left-leaning, sometimes behave as if there were never any merit in conservative positions of any kind. It should be clear, however, that there are conservative positions that have merit. We need the kind of balance that the positive side of conservative thinking provides.
The world is changing rapidly in many ways: technological, demographic, economic, and environmental. These changes are occurring at light-speed compared to any previous era. But refusing to adapt to change, even denying the possibility of certain vitally important changes, is the trademark of the most negative and dangerous versions of conservatism. This brand of conservatism arises from the unthinking conformist tendency that assigns authority to the norms of a particular social environment.
For example, once long ago I had just read that bus and taxi services that use their headlights during the day got a break on their insurance premiums because actuarial tables showed a lower accident rate corresponded with that practice. I drove to work the next morning with my headlights on in broad daylight. The manager of inventory happened to be standing at the entrance to the employee parking area and signaled me that I had them on.
I told him that it was intentional and explained why. He became very agitated and shouted at me angrily. It violated his sense of what is normal. It disturbed him so deeply that I would do something that so strongly violated widely accepted conventional practice. It didn’t matter to him that what I was doing was not only harmless, but could potentially reduce harm.
There are plenty of other examples like this. The typically unwitting assumption of those who deny any possibility of human-caused climate change, for example, is that the current technological status quo is written in stone for the foreseeable future. Even when they envision what would be necessary to combat human-caused global warming (Anthropogenic Global Warming or AGW), they reflexively think only in terms of reducing energy consumption with great individual sacrifices made in the context of little to no change in current technology.
These folks virtually ignore the possibility of accomplishing this with commercially viable, new technologies, or pretend that these will exist only far into the future. The possibility never occurs to them that we could reduce fossil fuel consumption in ways that eliminate any need to suffer negative economic consequences or make any great sacrifices to avoid AGW. Even when confronted with such possibilities, their brand of conservatism blindly denies that what is proposed could possibly be technologically or economically viable soon enough to be worth encouraging with policy now.
One simple example of a low-cost, perfectly viable means of doing this would involve new, walk-in refrigeration systems in stores, hotels, restaurants, etc. Many such systems in temperate and colder climates take no advantage of outside temperatures that are much colder than those inside during part of the year. Private homes virtually never do. Instead, they use energy for internal heat and then again to refrigerate goods within that warmth, failing to take any advantage of the outside temperature, an example of energy uselessly fighting energy. When outside temperatures are much lower than the temperature in a refrigerated space, there is no need to use much energy to refrigerate anything. Only enough would be needed to circulate an efficient, thermostatically controlled heat transporting fluid.
This is just one of many possibilities that exist right now. They require nothing but a change in thinking to implement. Before electricity, examples of this were commonplace in architecture and many other older technologies. Nevertheless, the advent of cheap energy encouraged the construction of what are effectively solar collectors posing as homes and commercial buildings that require inordinate amounts of energy to cool in the summer for no good reason whatsoever.
Such construction requires excessive burning of limited resources with an enormous variety of other uses, such as the manufacture of plastics and the production of many important chemical stocks. Future generations will pay for our short-sighted thinking even if we were to change yesterday. It is very telling that among those who have the most obvious vested interest in petroleum stocks under their soils are the Arab countries, some of which are working hard to avoid squandering their future by selling it all to be burnt by people who have no political will that shows they care a whit about that. (See the photo caption under the second photo in the middle of this article.)
There is another kind of waste: the inefficiency of current energy generation and that of the technological machinery it feeds. There are two approaches to improving this. The first is simply implementing technologies that require no new infrastructure and still use fossil fuels, but much more efficiently. These represent technologies that potentially transition to the second kind of improvement: entirely new technologies. There are many examples of both that already exist or are imminent.
One example of the first is a new internal combustion engine (ICE) that is much lighter and much more efficient than our current ICEs. Research at Michigan State University has resulted in a prototype gasoline engine with no transmission needed, nor any valves, fuel compression, crankshaft, pistons, cooling systems, or fluids. The aptly named Wave Disk Generator; has a potential to improve the efficiency of gas-electric hybrid automobiles. It could also decrease auto emissions as much as 90 percent compared to conventional ICEs.
This engine uses a spinning rotor equipped with wave-like channels to trap and mix fuel and oxygen. Central inlets close to block flow, building pressure in the chamber. The compressed air and fuel are ignited by the shock wave generated when the pressure is released. This, in turn, transmits the resulting energy via the mechanical output of the rotor.
Sixty percent of the fuel fed to the Wave Disk Generator is converted to propulsion as opposed to standard car engines that typically convert only fifteen percent. It could also reduce a car’s weight by about 1,000 pounds for a further increase in overall propulsion efficiency. As a result it is 3.5 times more fuel efficient than a typical conventional auto engine.
As to completely new technologies, the major roadblock for renewable resources is not in the resources but in the intermittent nature of the naturally existing energies they tap. This requires short-term storage solutions in order to buffer the intermittent supply for continuous energy availability. The principle is the same as using a pond to store rainwater for use whenever you want it. The most convenient way to fulfill this need uses a chemical energy carrier in which we can store the energy for use as needed and even transport it for mobile energy use.
The best candidate for this is generally considered to be hydrogen or some compound that contains a lot of it in dense form, since pure hydrogen has very low energy density. Hydrogen has a lot to recommend it, though, since it turns into water when it releases its energy store and storing energy in it simply requires separating it from water with electrolysis using renewable energy. However, there are a number of significant practical barriers to doing this at a commercially practical cost. They are:
1. The inefficiency of most approaches to electrolysis.
2. The low energy density of hydrogen compared to gasoline, for example, requiring new methods of storing it at a competitive density.
3. The cost of the technology required to convert the energy in hydrogen back into useful work.
4. Safety, since hydrogen in its pure form is highly explosive.
So how are we approaching solutions to these four barriers to what is often called a hydrogen economy? The most efficient way to generate hydrogen from water is direct solar illumination and chemical catalysts to greatly enhance the process. This is called photocatalysis. A European project, Hydrosol, has achieved efficiencies on the order of 30% in converting solar energy directly to hydrogen without the intermediary of electricity. This has already been scaled up successfully from prototypes to a small scale industrial level. The next step is underway to scale it up to the megawatt range. There are other approaches to the same problem touting various levels of success in different parts of the world as well as various other breakthroughs at other research institutions that are now progressing toward potential commercial implementation.
Ammonia as a hydrogen carrier is one approach to solving the problem of low energy density. However, Asemblon, Inc. has developed an organic chemical carrier for hydrogen, Hydrnol, that rivals gasoline for energy density and is rechargeable with hydrogen after use approximately one hundred times before it degrades. Asemblon is already partnering with the electric/hydrogen fuel cell hybrid Tyrano™ truck manufacturer to power its fleets for customers and begin developing infrastructure.
With hydrogen available in a safely transportable and highly dense form, we need a way to convert it back into useful work that is efficient and cost effective. Fuel cells are the most efficient means for this, but have traditionally used platinum as a catalyst. Platinum is in very limited supply and even with today’s relatively low demand for fuel cells is many, many times more expensive than gold. The demand potential for global conversion of autos to platinum-based fuel cell technology is simply impossible to meet. It is already way too expensive to be economically competitive.
However Monash University, among others, has developed efficient fuel cell technology that avoids the use of platinum. Instead it uses Gore-Tex™, the material used in waterproof but breathable outdoor wear. The Gore-Tex™ is coated with a micro-thin conducting plastic. This works on a par with platinum and eliminates the latter’s degeneration upon contamination with carbon monoxide fumes in conventional traffic. There is a more detailed description at this link. There are also a number of other promising approaches to eliminating platinum in fuel cells, but there are no industrial prototypes to date and may not be for a few years.
So there are technologies available now and others still in the laboratory prototyping stages that threaten to break the barriers to a hydrogen economy. Some are only a few short years away from commercial application. There is much energy industry propaganda declaring that the barriers to a hydrogen economy will persist for decades. This is intended to delay what are perceived as highly disruptive technologies for an industry that until now has had almost total control of energy supply worldwide. It plays on today’s version of the widespread disbelief in the possibility of human flight before the Wright brothers.
Thermo-solar technology is another promising source of renewable energy referred to earlier in connection with Arab participation. There are also new thin-film solar cell technologies that promise to compete in the very near future with electricity from the grid. Nanosolar, Inc. uses a modern high-speed press to print nanotechnology ink onto to a thin substrate. This is a technology already implemented in various places around the world for commercial applications and utilities. Nanosolar claims the potential exists to produce more than one gigawatt (one billion watts) of solar capacity per year at manufacturing costs below $0.50/W of installed power generation capacity. This is well under the current cost of installed power generation capacity in electrical utilities.
Despite our currently troubled economy and some premature risks leading to a downturn of venture capital flowing into renewable energy, it is still viewed by many as the next hugely profitable investment opportunity. Why? Whereas information technology profit potential was realized in terms of billions of U.S. dollars, the profit potential of renewable energy is seen by savvy investors in terms of trillions. This attitude among those knowledgeable in business investment strategies and management demonstrates that the opposition of many if not most conservatives to renewable energy is NOT shared by some of the smartest investors in our capitalist economy.
The most informed among business savvy investors are aware of the realities denied by most conservatives who ironically claim to support the economic system in which these entrepreneurs and investors have been extremely successful. These business-wise folks think for themselves and have access to good information. They research issues intelligently instead of listening to those who make their living feeding some of us only what we already feel comfortable believing.
I have had personal contact with some of the relatively small high-tech companies developing these hydrogen solutions. They are taking a slow and carefully planned strategic path to avoid a showdown with their well established and virtually all-powerful fossil fuel competitors. These competitors are armed with enough political influence to start wars to protect their interests, with history to show they are not at all loath to do just that. This together with the politicians and those voters their lobbies and vast fortunes influence directly or indirectly, are the real barriers to a hydrogen economy.
We went to the moon in less than a decade after President Kennedy made it a goal. We did that with NASA, a strictly government funded institution, although ironically those most opposed to that were liberal. Liberals had the zero-sum game mindset that saw spending on moon trips as something that took away from other things we should be doing. But we would have none of our modern digital technology, laptops, cell-phones, etc. if it had not been for that. Our per capita productivity would be much lower. It was a super-smart government investment in our economy. Now we have a strange new breed of backward conservatives who oppose the mostly private sector development of renewable energy with precisely the same, invalid zero-sum mentality. The hydrogen economy is going to come. How long that will take is more a matter of political will than of technology.
Copyright May 2013 © Robert P. Wendell
Redistribution freely permitted contingent on the unmodified inclusion of this copyright notice.