The Importance of Energy

Energy is vital to the prosperity of communities and society as a whole. There were 253 million registered passenger cars and trucks on the roads in the United States in 2014. In 2016, there were estimated to be over 207 million smartphone users in the United States, which is estimated to above 257 million by the year 2020. In 2009, there were over 100 million air conditioners in US homes. All these commodities take energy, and in the case of air conditioners and cars, a significant amount of energy. In 2013 the United States consumed 12,988 kWh per person. According to the US Census, in 2013 there were about 317,200,000 people living in the United States. This means the United States consumed about 4,119,793,600 MWh of electricity in 2013 alone.

With these numbers in mind, it would not be a stretch to say that the United States’ standard of living rests heavily on its access to energy. Dr. Charles Hall, a researcher in systems ecology and biophysical economics, goes as far as saying that the “American Dream” was created due to the United States’ access to energy, most notably pointing to the use of the spindletop, an oil drilling tool, in 1901 as one of the most important economic events in the United States.

When it comes down to it, our access to energy is inseparably tied to our energy policy. This highlights the importance of sound energy policy in the United States, as well as the state of Colorado. In order to sustain a high standard of living, energy policy must be conducive to greater and greater access to energy.

What is the Environment Worth?

This is a difficult question that doesn’t have an answer that we could possibly calculate. There are a lot of variables to consider. First off, we would need to define what the “environment” is and what it means to destroy an environment. However, I do not find this question worth delving into in huge depth here so we will define the “environment” with a simple connotative definition of the natural sphere. So in some kind of way, national parks, undeveloped land, and communities of non-human species are all how I define the environment in this context. Also, to destroy the environment means to alter it in any kind of way that would have not been able to have been done without human influence. So constructing a building or any kind of development would be considered destroying the environment. These are not set definitions, and what the “environment” is and isn’t and how you protect it is up for a lot of interpretations. However, in this case I am going with this simple definition of the environment.

Now that we have a definition for what the environment is, we can think about its value with better boundaries. We must keep in mind, though, that there is no blanket value to the environment. A natural desert area is part of the environment, but it is not as valuable as say a natural hot spring to us or to a larger diversity of species. So if we were to say the entire environment conglomerated together was worth 100 trillion dollars (just a made up value), it wouldn’t be right to apply this value equally among square feet. So if there were 10 trillion square feet of natural space conglomerated, you couldn’t simply say that each square foot was worth $10, as some pieces of land would probably be more valuable than others. Like said before a natural hot spring or aquifer is probably more valuable than a piece of desert land.

However, this implies that the environment has a finite value, though to many people I talk with it doesn’t seem they believe this. It seems like many people think the environment has an infinite value. Meaning that all human development is wrong, and that we should always favor environmental protection over development. No matter what, you should not drill oil and any oil drilling is inherently evil.

I hope that the people that hold these beliefs are not reading my blog… or any blogs for that matter. If they were, they would be committing a huge atrocity in their own world view (not mine). They would essentially be sacrificing something of infinite value for something of finite value. They would essentially be making everyone on this Earth immeasurably worse off, as they would be using energy of a finite and calculable value to read my blog. I unfortunately have to admit that my blog is probably incredibly low on the value scale and is most likely not even in the top 75% of most valuable things (if you could even measure what the MOST valuable things are). However, you the reader right now are forfeiting something of unquantifiable value for something that is relatively low value. How dare you!?

How dare you own anything or even develop a smidgeon if you think the environment is of infinite value? There is nothing else on Earth that has infinite value, not even a human life. You might look at that and be shocked, but my reasoning is simple. Imagine that a human life has infinite value and is in danger of some kind. The only way to save this life, for some weird and bizarre reason, is to kill of every bear, fox, and wolf in the world. Is it worth it? Is killing off every bear, fox, and wolf worth saving a single human life. If a human life has infinite value, the answer here is absolutely yes, as a bear, a wolf, or a fox does not have infinite value.

To relate this example back to the environment. If the environment has infinite value and is in danger because of humans, would it be worth it to kill off every human in order to protect this thing of infinite value?

I think it is clear to see here that the environment, just like everything else that has ever existed, does not have infinite value. That means it must have some kind of countable value. However just like the value of a human life, it would be difficult to ever know what this value actually is. We know the value exists, but we cannot put an exact number on it.

Though, I think it would be easier to learn the value of something in the smaller scale. I think you would be able to get a rough estimate of the utility and value of a marshland on a community through certain practices. Even this is impossible though if there is no kind of market price that can be set for these natural spaces.

I will expand on this idea in future blogs, but this is your food for thought. How could you determine the value of a natural space? And how could you determine if development is worth the degradation of an environment?

Middle Earth Time: Comparing the Age of the Earth to the Lord of the Rings Movies

What if we were to compare Earth’s historical time to Middle Earth’s movie runtime? If we were to compare these two and put them side by side, at what point in the movie would you be during the KPG extinction (the event that killed off most of the dinosaurs)? Think of this like Carl Sagan’s cosmic calendar. Except instead of a calendar, it is all the Lord of the Rings movies, and instead of the history of the whole universe, it is just the history of the Earth.

So to start out, we need to know how long both are in order to create a conversion rate. The Earth has been around for 4.6 billion years (4,600,000,000 years). If we were to put all the movies together and cut out all the end credits, the movies run for 10 hours, 26 minutes, and 59 seconds. In seconds, it runs for 37,619 seconds.

(Note: I am using the theatrical version for Fellowship, but extended versions for Two Towers and Return of the King because it is all I could find)

With these numbers, for every second that passes in the movies, 122,278.6355 years pass in Earth time. For every year that passes on Earth time, 8.178043×10-6 seconds pass in the movies. Another way to write this is 0.000008178043 seconds pass.

(The links will take you to Youtube clips of the specific scene I am talking about)

As the Earth has finished forming, our movie begins. The screen is black and about to show the New Line Cinema logo. For several hundred million years the Earth is being bombarded by a shower of meteors. In movie time, the meteor bombardment lasts for about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

As the bombardment stops, Elrond is in a private meeting at his home with Gandalf, and says “men? Men are weak.” Time continues on Earth until we get to the formation of the oldest sedimentary rocks we have ever found (3.9 billion years old). At this time in the movie, Bilbo is grabbing Frodo’s hand as he is saddened that the Ring has tempted him again (1 hour and 35 minutes into Fellowship of the Ring). This is right after Bilbo makes the scary face at Frodo.

Fast forward in Earth time to the first eukaryotic cells, and in the movies we are already at the Battle of Helm’s Deep in the Two Towers. The orcs are firing a ballista at the wall (this is shortly after Gimli asks Aragorn to toss him during the battle).

Fast forward even more to the first mammals and dinosaurs on earth, and we are already well over 3 and a half hours of Return of the King! Frodo and Sam are already inside of Mount Doom, and Golem is attacking Frodo as he is invisible and is about to bite his finger off.

By the time of the KPG extinction (when most of the dinosaurs go extinct), the Ring is already destroyed, the hobbits have already gone home, and Frodo is finishing Bilbo’s book with the words “Bilbo’s story is now over. There would be no more journeys for him.”

The first hominids (our earliest ancestors) come in on the scene of Earth time, but Sam is just closing his gate with his family behind him. There is only seconds left in the film. As “The End” enters the screen in movie time, homo sapiens make their first appearance, the earliest know cave art is found, Julius Caesar was killed, China built the Great Wall, World War 2 was fought, and everyone you and I have ever know were born. The screen fades to complete black, and we are now back at current Earth Time.

Here is a graph of all the time stamps and a direct comparison between Earth time and the movie times:

lotr-time-graph

What if we got rid of fossil fuels immediately?

Just as a hypothetical, what if we decided to pack up all oil, gas, and coal developments and go home? What if we decided that we have had enough of fossil fuel pollution, and decided to outlaw the practice of drilling and mining fossil fuels, as well as selling it. I don’t mean a slow transition, but an immediate shift. The purpose of this is to put into perspective what our energy needs and energy market looks like today.

Let’s start with how much energy is consumed and where it comes from. Below is a table created by the U.S. Energy Information Administration showing by energy source how much is being consumed. The units are represented in quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTU).

primary-energy-consumption

In case you didn’t know, a BTU is a lot like a calorie, in that is how much energy is needed to raise a specific amount of water a specific temperature. In the case of BTUs, one BTU is the amount of energy needed to raise one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. The average household uses about 263.5 million BTUs a year. Compare this number to the amount of BTUs consumed by the United States in a year (specifically 2015), which is 97.344 quadrillion BTUs. To show you the scope of these numbers, I want to write them out fully for you.

The average household consumes 263,500,000 BTUs a year.

The United States in 2015 consumed 97,344,000,000,000,000 BTUs.

This is clearly massive, but how much of it is from fossil fuels? According to the EIA, 79.330 quadrillion BTUs of energy consumed in the United States comes from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum). This means about 81.5% of our energy consumption in the United States comes from fossil fuels! About 8.6% comes from nuclear energy. 0.44% comes from solar power, and 1.8% comes from wind power. With all the renewables together (wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and biomass), the number is about 9.7% of our energy consumption.

These numbers should be enlightening. It means that today we are still reliant on fossil fuels, and based on the shear amount of energy we get from it, it will be difficult to shift. However, if it were to be an irresponsible and immediate shift, we could assume that we would be 81.5% the energy we demand! This would be gas lines like in the 1970s, and huge electricity shortages across the nations.

To us that live relatively comfortable lives, blackouts don’t sound like big deal. We have dealt with blackouts in snowstorms or ferocious lightning storms. But think of the hospitals need that power to save lives. Think of the 911 responders that now will be without communication. Think of the families that need to refrigerate life-saving medication. Think of all the food that will go bad. Think of the traffic lights in busy cities that will no longer work. Think of the people that live in dire cold environments that will struggle to keep themselves warm. Think of the people that live in dire hot and humid environments that would no longer be able to keep themselves cool. These are all life-threatening situations, and as of right now, oil, gas, and coal are the reliable and cheap energy sources that make it so these things do not happen.

If we were to hypothetically remove fossil fuels altogether, we would fix these problems eventually, right? We would probably be hard at work constructing nuclear reactors, hydroelectric dams, and digging for geothermal energy, but all these endeavors require a lot of energy to do! It takes a lot of energy to construct massive concrete towers for nuclear reactors. It takes a lot of energy to build massive concrete dams or even to get the materials to the rivers in the first place. All of this development for these alternative energy resources would require a lot of energy we wouldn’t have because we have removed fossil fuels entirely. How would we have enough energy to fix this problem in the time we needed it? People would undergo incredible suffering and death while waiting for this solution to come, if it ever could come in time.

To give you a concrete example of this, Southern Australia tried kicking out oil and gas recently. They decided to become reliant on wind energy, unfortunately for them wind is not an incredibly reliant form of energy. The wind doesn’t always blow. Because of this prices would spike up to $14,000 a megawatt hour in Southern Australia, and have averaged around $360 a megawatt hour! Compare this price to other areas in Australia that pay around $90 a megawatt hour. Supply in energy dropped in Southern Australia and prices skyrocketed. Since then, Southern Australia has begged natural gas plants to resume operation.

Getting rid of fossil fuels in one swoop would be terrifying! But so many young people today truly believe that we should immediately introduce legislation in states to get rid of oil and gas. Luckily, I don’t believe this is a widespread belief, but one that I have come across enough to feel like I should write this post. Every time I come across this idea, I can’t help but face palm harder and harder.

And to be clear, I am not saying we couldn’t ever live in a prosperous world without fossil fuels. I am simply saying that is not our world today, and it will not be our world for many days to come. We demand a huge amount of energy, and right now, our current renewable energy sources are not appearing to be the panacea we need.

Earth: A New Hope (Geologic Time to Star Wars)

Geologic time is vast, and the Earth is incredibly old. So old that understanding its scale can be hard to fathom. In order to understand its longevity, we will be looking back a long time ago in a galaxy far far away to Star Wars: A New Hope.

The origin of our Earth is 4.6 billion years ago in which a black screen envelops our movie screen to be shifted to a 20th Century Fox logo blaring loud trumpets. For 600 million years our world was bombarded by space junk, dust, and meteorites. By the time this bombardment is over in the context of A New Hope, Storm Troopers are combing the deserts of Tatooine and one brazenly yells “look sir droids!” Fast forward to a scene in the Millennium Falcon, and Han Solo is scolding Luke Skywalker with his famous line “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match to a good blaster at your side, kid.” About a minute before this line is said, our Earth is undergoing its first tectonic activity.

Finally, we reach some of our first life on earth, which are eukaryotic cells about 2 billion years ago, and we are already over half way through the movie when imperial troops are boarding the Millennium Falcon on board the Death Star. By the time the first amphibians and insects show up on the stage of earth, the Rebel alliance is already halfway through their attack of the Death Star and Darth Vader is arriving in his specialized Tie Advanced with two Tie Fighters on both his sides. As the battle continues, dinosaurs and mammals make their entrance onto Earth, but the first flowers make their appearance right as Luke’s X-Wing missiles enter the Death Star’s exhaust port. The extinction of the dinosaurs happens right as the last scene of the movie, the award ceremony, begins.

The direct ancestors of humans arrive, but the movie is minutes to being over, as Chewbacca makes his first roar of the awards ceremony. Humans arrive at his second roar about 10 seconds later (millions of years in Earth time). As the final circular fade out of the movie happens, the earliest cave art known is found, the Neanderthals go extinct, Mount Vesuvius buries Pompeii, and everyone you have every known was born.

The credits roll.

To put this into quick perspective, the dinosaurs go extinct right as the Youtube video below begins. Everything you ever learned in history class happens right after Chewbaca’s second roar, seconds before the movie ends.

Below are the exact times things happen:

Geologic Time Real Event Movie Time
4.6 Ga Origin of Earth and the Solar System 0:00:00
4.0 Ga End of heavy meteorite bombardment; oldest surviving rocks 0:15:38
3.9 Ga Oldest sedimentary rocks; first possible geochemical evidence of life 0:18:17
3.5 Ga First likely microbial structures 0:28:45
2.7 Ga Biomarkers of blue green “algae” (cyanobacteria) & of eukaryotes 0:49:40
2.3-2.2 Ga First global tectonic activity 1:00:07- 1:02:44
2.0 Ga First eukaryotic cells, first oxidized soils; significant oxygen in atmosphere 1:07:57
750-600 Ma Widespread glaciation, oxygen rises to 100% of present level 1:40:38-1:44:33
600 Ma First fossil metazoans (multicellular animals) 1:44:33
543 Ma First multicellular animals with skeletons & modern metazoan phyla 1:46:02
500 Ma First vertebrates 1:47:10
440 Ma First multicellular land plants 1:48:44
370 Ma First amphibians & insects 1:50:34
345 Ma First amniotes (vertebrates with water tight eggs) 1:51:13
250 Ma Permo Triassic Mass extinction (over 90% of species lost) 1:53:42
220 Ma First mammals & dinosaurs 1:54:29
120 Ma First flowering plants (angiosperms) 1:57:06
66 Ma Cretaceous -Tertiary mass extinction followed by rapid diversification of mammals 1:58:31
4-7 Ma First hominids 2:00:03
100 Ka Homo sapiens first appears in rock record 2:00:13.84
50 Ka earliest cave art 2:00:13.92
45-30 Ka Extinction of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) 2:00:13.93-2:00:13.95
12 Ka Mass extinction of large terrestrial mammals, possibly caused by humans 2:00:13.98
79 CE Mount Vesuvius erupts burying Pompeii 2:00:13.9999
1816 CE “The Year without a Summer” (part of the Little Ice Age) 2:00:13.999999
1995 CE My birthyear 2:00:13.9999999999999

 

Movie Time Movie Event
0:00:00 Black screen fades to 20th Century Fox Logo
0:15:38 Storm Troopers are looking for the missing escape pod in the desert and a Storm Trooper says “Look sir! Droids!”
0:18:17 Uncle Owen just bought C-3PO from the Jawas and says “take these two to the garage”
0:28:45 R-2 has just alerted Luke and C-3PO of the Sand People in the area and they are looking at their Banthas
0:49:40 Storm Troopers walked into the cantina at Mos Eisley, and come check out Han and Chewie’s table
1:00:07- 1:02:44 R-2 kills one of Chewbaca’s pieces in the Dejarik game; “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match to a good blaster at your side, kid”; Obi Wan gives Luke a helmate with a blast shield
1:07:57 Two imperial workers board the Millenium Falcon with a crate
1:40:38-1:44:33 A rebel engineer is describing how a precise hit to an exhaust port will destroy the Death Star; “I use to bullseye wamprats!”; Rebel pilots take off for mission against the Death Star
1:44:33 Luke’s X-wing is taking off for mission against Death Star
1:46:02 “Cut the Chatter Red 2” X-wings in attack formation approaching Death Star
1:47:10 X-wings are being scattered by turret fighter; “Watch yourselves!”
1:48:44 Tie fighter outflanks Luke’s X-wing and gets right behind him
1:50:34 Darth Vader arrives with two other Tie fighters to the Death Star Trench
1:51:13 Imperial officer asks Grand Moff Tarkin if he would like to evacuate the Death Star
1:53:42 “Luke at that speed will you be able to pull out in time!?”
1:54:29 Darth Vader is .3 units away from Rebel pilots; “Fighter coming in .3!”
1:57:06 Luke’s missiles enter the exhaust port on the Death Star
1:58:31 Wide shot of the forest on Yavin IV and trumpets playing in the background
2:00:03 Chewbaca roars for the first time at the award ceremony
2:00:13.84 Chewbaca roars at the award ceremony for the second and last time
2:00:13.92 The circular fade out appears at the edges of the screen
2:00:13.93-2:00:13.95 Fade out reaches half-way through the screen
2:00:13.98 Fade out encompasses the screen and George Lucas’ end credit fades in slowly
2:00:13.9999 Screen is full of stars and George Lucas’ name is fully on the screen
2:00:13.999999 Screen is still full of stars and George Luca’s name is fully on the screen
2:00:13.9999999999999 Absolutely no changes

What does it mean to be agnostic on energy?

Simplistically, it means that we support the free market methods of finding a preferable energy source, whether it be renewables, fracking, nuclear energy, or some other energy production method.

It seems that there are many conservatives and libertarians across the United States that are against renewable energy, namely wind and solar, in and of itself. However, this shows a complete misunderstanding of the free market position. Oil and natural gas are not libertarian sources of energy, whatever that may mean. The whole point of a free market is that it is undesigned. There are no winner and losers chosen, but instead our energy source is “chosen” through consumer demand, prices, supply, and a multitude of other factors.

The truth is that I have a soft spot for renewable and clean energy. The environment is important to me, and I wish for people for years to come to enjoy the same Rocky Mountains I have enjoyed my entire life. I hope most people would think it would be absurd to claim otherwise. However, I still do not think it is appropriate for the government to mandate or skew markets for the sake of what a few may determine is a preferable energy supply, as it would most certainly be arbitrary.

For example if I were to choose, I would probably choose nuclear energy as a preferable form of energy production as it is clean, really awesome (totally not a value statement), and relatively effective. However, nuclear energy is not perfect as it can be really expensive to build the infrastructure for and takes incredibly specialized professionals to do the job. If some environmental leftists were to choose, I assume they would choose wind energy. Wind energy production doesn’t create emissions, and the wind is a resource that won’t be going away anytime soon. However, wind is not a reliable enough source of energy to depend on and the materials used to build these farms are not environmentally friendly either. Similar things could be said about solar energy. If a traditional conservative were to choose, they might choose hydraulic fracturing, which is relatively cheap and cleaner than crude oil drilling. However, fracking is not emissions-free and is also not currently politically desirable in many ways.

So when we set up a system that chooses winner and losers, the winner is only dependent on who the chooser is, which is not something that I think anyone is particularly interested in.

However, that does not mean we can’t have an effect on the energy being used today. We certainly can, but we can’t use government preferences for these ends. Consumer demand is a powerful element of a market, and it is something that we all can affect. If you are interested in cleaner energy, educate people about it. Make people really desire having cleaner energy or whatever form of energy you think is best. This isn’t an impossible task, but it is more difficult than using the government as a tool to your ends.

Furthermore, as surprising as this may sound, we must check our own privileges when discussing sound energy policy. Yes, the environment is important and we should protect it, but this does come with a higher bill. While this higher bill is mostly affordable to the high and middle class, the same can’t be said for the less fortunate and lower class. While they would certainly benefit from a cleaner environment, I am not sure they would find the tradeoff of being able to afford more food, better clothes, and so on desirable. However in a free market of energy, they could make such a choice if they so desire.

When it comes down to it sound energy policy is quite difficult, and even more so when you think the government should pick winners and losers in the market. People think that it is so easy when they post things to Facebook like “of course the government needs to subsidize renewable energy” yet they know very little about the costs of such a policy and who it effects. Likewise, people think it is so easy to say “oil and gas is the cheapest therefore the best”, but they don’t even bother to consider the externalities of such a decision or how different people may value its environmental effects.

Trevor Burrus, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, recently wrote about the difficulties of gun policy in which he explains that the gun control argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe and the gun rights argument is not as obvious of an argument as its advocates would like you to believe. The same could be said about energy policy, and most policy matters. It is hard. It is nuanced. There is no cure all policy or energy source, for that matter.

This is why I am agnostic on energy sources, and this is why the free market is so important. There are certainly market failures in addressing issues throughout history, but freeing up the market takes the hard decisions out of the hands of an arbitrary decider, or deciders, and into a complex system in which we all are a part of.

Nuclear Energy: But What about Rocky Flats Plant?

Nuclear energy can be a touchy subject to Coloradans. The only real commercial power plant to exist in the state was Fort St. Vrain, and then there is an even bigger and more widely known elephant in the room: Rocky Flats. If you don’t know what Rocky Flats is, it is a controversial nuclear weapons development facility near Golden, Colorado that was opened in 1952. When it was built, the information of what the facility was doing and the materials it was using was mostly secret due to national security interests because of our contentions with the Soviet Union. Transparency was certainly not a virtue of the Cold War Era. Due to our lack of knowledge in the nuclear area at this time, there were some precautions taken to eliminate contamination, but not all the proper precautions were taken. As a result the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a few other governmental organizations had investigated the site and found huge breaches in safety for the surrounding public, the environment, and plant workers. Production halted in 1989, and cleanup began in 1992.

While the current contamination of surrounding areas, which include residential and agricultural areas, are not high enough to warrant cleanup by the EPA, the site is still highly monitored by the EPA and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), as it is listed as a Superfund site by the EPA. Public outcry against the site was huge back in the early 90s, and there is still a lot of public contention today.

However, it is wrong to conflate a commercial nuclear plant with a nuclear weapons plant. Rocky Flats Plant was used to create nuclear weapon triggers called “pits”, while commercial nuclear plants create electricity. The Rocky Flats Plant used weapons grade plutonium, while nuclear power plants use regular enriched uranium. While plutonium was used at the Rocky Flats site, uranium is normally used for weapons as it is more readily found than plutonium, but the uranium used for electricity in commercial plants is still much different than the uranium used in weapons. To put this in perspective, weapons grade uranium has drastically higher levels of 235U (the isotope used to create both electricity and weapons) than the concentration of the enriched uranium (also the 235U isotope) used in electricity generation. Weapons grade uranium has over 90% 235U, while the enriched uranium used in electricity is 0.7% to 25%.

With this perspective, it is clear to see why weapon development has a much higher chance of contamination and a more severe effect from contamination than electricity generation. While there are possible health and environmental concerns with nuclear power, to use weapons development as evidence against it is groundless.