Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Motorcycle and the Art of Handling Energy Crisis

If you’re a guy, close your eyes (and go to sleep?) and feel the grunt, the thrust of a Harley Davidson (gals can hop-back). Only the roar adds 10 mph to its speed. Its muscle complimenting yours, its beautiful handle blending in your palms, a laser correct stability on-road and a monstrous dominance off-road makes living-in-this-world so much worthwhile. Now imagine 2075. Imagine an “i-Robot” style electric car that is self-manoeuvred, programmed and integrated to the online traffic feedback system. It doesn’t make a sound. It’s fast-n-sexy-n-funky. It has a dozen of triple character technologies that make it safe and non-risky. Well, did you feel suffocated? Maybe The Terminator felt so and came back from future to feel the magic of the former. 

Folks, today we have a beautiful present, but it may be ephemeral. Last century saw the petroleum consumption go twenty folds the consumption in 19th century. Our oil extraction technologies have outgrown the renewable energy technologies in the last two decades. The extractors have also started angling the spoon to get the liquid gold out of its caves. To date world’s population is nearly 7 billion and it is said to stabilize till 9 billion. It takes a million years for those naïve plants to capture sun’s energy and compress it into a high energy density fuel. We are already aware that the fossil fuels will deplete. According to estimates, if we assume that they are reliable, oil will last around 43 years, coal -131 years and natural gas -60 years. If we balance out and predict through mathematical model, the combined fossil fuel content will last around 75 years. But they may deplete sooner than research or perception marks and alarmingly sooner than we are ready. 

I’m writing this piece neither to press the panic button nor to load your mind with a statistical analysis of world’s energy usage. This is an attempt to address one question that has bothered us since childhood but left un-digged – How will we cope without fossil fuels? This is an attempt to convolute action and compulsion in our thoughts and generate a conscience. A widespread conscience.

The recent power outage in Northern India saw – 19 affected states, cancelled trains, stationary Metro, blackened homes, airport & hospitals on backup, AIIMS begging power from Bhutan, unplanned holiday in offices – a jolt at par with a war situation wherein enemy takes control of the arteries and veins of the nation. A necessary jolt though. It at least replaced the #10ThingsToEatBeforeYouDie trend with #BenefitsOfPowerCuts. We, at least, had a talk about the impending energy crisis. It is another thing that talk is not enough. But still.Reports say that such a situation was bound to happen as the major affected states imported heavily from neighboring states. Demands skyrocketed in peak hours and transmission lines got overloaded and tripped. You may look at it in three ways – Utter power distribution failure, improper maintenance of plants or a beginning of the end, inevitability. Having only 6 nuclear plants as against 65 in US, India is just a vulnerable child. More than 85% of its power comes from coal, oil or gas and that too majorly from import. This stat is close to the world average but given the stature of a to-be-superpower nation, it is far from sustainable. Denmark’s  19% energy source in form of wind; France’s 80% in form of nuclear power; and Germany’s over 70% in form of nuclear plus renewable sources is but a laugh at that said claim. It doesn’t need to be re-stressed that nations don’t need only fire power to win a war now.  

But why am I crying about India’s energy security? The blackouts are happening at more places. We have a bigger problem at hand.Yesterday’s Black Monday hurled me to dig the internet, hoping to encounter serendipity in terms of the solution of world’s energy crisis, hoping to find inspiration in affluent nation’s energy usage map, but found myself startled and at utter detest against this one country – United States of America. Let me repeat – utter detest. The reason is this statistical analysis, a must read. I’ll put its summary in 3 points as follows. Number one- Food processing & consumption is an energy cycle. System takes in some energy (that includes fossil fuels) and gives some back to environment. On an average, worldwide, such systems give back 50% of what they take in while US gives back just 13%. In fact it consumes in 2100 W of non-renewable energy to produce 100W of food. Number two – Per capita energy utilization of world is 5kg of energy unit per day; Indians use 1.4, Chinese 6.4 while US citizens – 23.6. Africans – not even worth mentioning. Number three- If every nation starts using energy at US’s rate, fossil fuels will deplete in just 16 years! Now that’s what is called being developed.

One may feel inquisitive now– why no major outcry? There are a group of reasons.

Development of nuclear power plants is the biggest of them. According to estimates, U-235 and plutonium resources would last around hundreds of years if used by current non-breeder type nuclear reactors. If we succeed in developing breeder reactors, we would be able to utilize U-238, which is amply present in oceans to last for millions of years. Then there is mother of all – nuclear fusion (technology of producing energy by combining hydrogen isotopes viz. deuterium and tritium) that may provide energy for billions of years. It is theorized that we’d be able to build fusion reactors in 50 years from now. At first, these facts spring us in air like Uncle Scrooge’s nephews. However, they are hardly an appeasement. Chernobyl incident, recent nuclear plant destruction by tsunami in Japan, under-developed technology to handle nuclear waste, a setup prone to hijack by terrorists all converge to the fact that nuclear plants are not yet safe. More of them mean more chances of mishaps. A recent survey shows that less than a third of sustainable energy experts feel that nuclear energy is a straight answer to problems.

A distant second is a group of these – hydel, solar, wind, shale gas, oceanic, bio-fuel etc. Each has its own limitations. Hydel is non-pervasive and non-perennial. Wind is moody. Oceanic is too under-developed and remains unpromising. Bio-fuel has its own cycle of taking in energy and giving back, though far-promising than aforementioned. Shale gas is new, promising but not everlasting. Solar is still highly inefficient and far from a social success. A lot of research has to go into solar power harnessing. Nevertheless, the sun remains the biggest “star” of future. A no. of nano-technologies are being developed to achieve affordability and efficiency in this medium. Fingers crossed.

After going through all these research, the mood is neither skeptical nor optimistic. The stone in hand has turned into mud but yet has to become sand.

Since long I had a simple code to get through complex situations – come back to nature. Whether it is school, college, office, family, friends or enemies – nature provides a good sample of all situations. In nature, every small entity is important. Everything from bacteria, virus, caterpillar, butterfly, grass, weeds, animals, plants, and what not – every single entity has a role to play. The more the variety of strands, the stronger is the web. The petrol-diesel-gas-solar-hydel-wind-nuclear-ocean-shale-geothermal web is of a similar kind. The longer we hold this web, the better for us. Each small initiative such as self-energy-sufficient villages, zero-energy buildings, solar powered appliances, commuting office by cycle, one wind mill in locality, buying an electric car, global earth hours, planting a sapling and minimizing food wastage matters. Howsoever small, they are important. And the trick to make such initiatives effective is being part of a similar-minded active communityWe will continue to dig and rig till the last ounce of coal & oil remains, we are so inextricably chained with them. But, we CAN slow things down.

OK, enough said. Let me leave you with a thought. On a cool Sunday afternoon in autumn, over a straight smooth road spotted with sun-rays filtered through the shades of eucalyptus, when the fallen leaves whirl incessantly, if you feel playful, what can you do best? 

Just go back to the first paragraph.

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