Vail Valley Voices: It’s not easy being green |

Vail Valley Voices: It’s not easy being green

Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado

Timing, they say, is everything. My showing up for Eagle’s Party for the Planet Earth Day street festival the day after sugesting that a solar carport at the airport would qualify as greenwash” was probably a good example of dumb.

The one Eagle County commissioner I ran into was quick to inform me, strongly, that the idea was “just up for discussion.” Evidently, it has been getting some.

As I drove home with my daughter, having burned another two gallons of gasoline on the Saturday round-trip to Costco, City Market and downtown Eagle, I began to ponder the concept of green, greenwashing and what actual, real life in a 100 percent renewable energy economy would be like.

I believe its fair to state that such a life won’t involve the easy, instant access to the over 300,000 BTUs of energy required to make a quick weekend drive into town to celebrate Earth Day while also picking up a week’s groceries and medicine, something that simply turning a key in a Toyota provides today.

I realized a year or so ago that if you want to know what life in a 100 percent renewable energy economy will be like, you don’t need to study photovoltaic systems (solar panels), concentrated solar thermal energy, smart grids, wind energy, turbine theory or anything associated with renewable energy.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.

If you want to understand the future, you need only study the past. The first thing to do to understand the world ahead, when fossil fuels have become rare, expensive and mostly unavailable at anything like today’s cost, is to get online and buy a copy of “Two Years Before The Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea,” by Richard Henry Dana.

If you have an Amazon Kindle device, the price is just 80 cents! This remarkable 19th century book, was written by a Harvard law student who took a couple of years away from school due to eyesight problems. Dana signed on as an “able seaman” with a packet ship involved in the hide trade along California’s coast, back when California was still a Mexican territory, and wrote what may be the best description of life in a 100 percent renewable energy economy ever written. (Not that it was intended as such. It was simply Dana’s diary, reflecting a common sailor’s life and hardships.)

Since humanity didn’t know about or use fossil energy at all about 150 years ago, our entire history has involved renewable energy. Until very recently, we milled flour by hand or by using water power directly to operate the mills. We walked most places, since a team of horses took a lot of money, effort and time to maintain and use. Coach travel was something wealthy people enjoyed since it was taken care of by their hired help and was a luxury most people couldn’t afford.

We lived in towns and cities. Food was grown locally. Night lighting and small machinery lubrication was provided by olive and whale oil. Commerce was conducted by people who could afford large inventories as well as a space to put them since transportation was difficult to the extreme. Before railroads and steam engines only small loads could be moved over rough dirt or hand-cobbled roadbeds.

International trade by sea using “renewable wind energy” routinely took weeks or months and didn’t exist at all on any real scale until the 1600s. When the wind blew, but didn’t blow too hard, ships sailed the seas. When the trade winds didn’t blow, sailors hand-tarred the ship’s rigging, picked oakum (meaning they picked apart old rope for its unrotted fibers and then spun and braided new ropes using the fibers they reclaimed), mended their few clothes and swabbed the decks.

There were no ATM or credit cards. Indeed, there was no credit at all. Life and commerce moved at the speed of nature — an easy walk, about two miles per hour. Perhaps 1 percent of the planet lived like royalty because they were and the other 99 percent served them. (Some things don’t change so much!)

Since the industrial revolution delivered by coal and steam, petroleum and natural gas, along with their cousin electricity, which delivered a royal life to everyone within two generations, we’ve forgotten everything we knew about living with nothing but renewable energy.

Life in the pre-fossile fuel renewable energy economy was hard. Really hard. So hard that the total population of the planet was kept below about one-tenth of what it has grown to since the hardship of just staying alive was relieved for most people by fossil energy and the advances in other related technologies a constant energy supply empowered.

The amount of energy the world’s people consume today is mind boggling.

People always think of electricity when talking about energy, but it is liquid fuel that accounts for the majority of energy we use. The liquid fuel system transforms almost all of the primary energy that it receives into intermediate energy (gasoline, diesel, butane, etc.).

The final consumption process (chiefly automobiles) produces the largest loss, since internal combustion engines have very low efficiencies. The loss in the electrical system can be seen clearly, since in thermoelectric power plants (including nuclear power plants) where these losses occur, efficiency of the equipment is limited by the laws of thermodynamics.

Fossil fuel electric plants are about 30 percent efficient, meaning that out of the 20 or so railcars of coal each burns per day, some 14 carloads go up the stack as waste heat. Another 18 percent is lost to heat in the grid between you and the power plant, as transmission system loss.

Lost and/or delivered, the modern world consumes a huge amount of energy that has been and is still available instantly, at our demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week We’ve lived with this for two or three generations, like royalty. We expect it to be like this.

Now, solar power specialists point out that the sun provides far more power to the Earth than this each day, but unless it is harvested above the atmosphere in space it is highly intermittent energy and let’s face it, the sun and wind still won’t power a semi-tractor trailer loaded with groceries over the Continental Divide from a warehouse in Denver to the market in Vail.

OK, what about solar electricity, charging batteries for electric vehicles? The production lines of the entire world produced 5.5 gigawatts of PV materials last year, up 40 percent from the year before. Optimally installed on the planet’s surface, the annual production of the panels produced would be about 10,000 gigawatt hours per year, or about 1/10th of 1 percent of the 11,630,000 gigawatt-hours – times 9 – used back in 2003.

While we are making some progress in personal electric transportation, use of all-electric trains to haul goods and people is far more feasible than deploying millions of individual battery powered trucks and cars.

We might be able to borrow enough money from the Chinese to retrofit the nation’s rail lines with overhead electric lines and new all-electric engines, but we’d best get started on that soon. While we’re at it, regional warehousing should be beefed up, so electric trucks won’t have to run more than a hundred miles or so to make deliveries. And we’d best think about doing some local farming on the land that hasn’t been paved over with crackerbox suburbs.

Realisticlly, the coal and petroleum world we’ve all grown up in, assimilated, understand as “normal” and expect to continue — can’t. It’s not going to be this way even as long as it has been this way up to now.

Here’s the heart of the problem, even if we ignore the two-thirds of our energy supply that is liquid fuel:

The average American home uses about 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. Let’s convert that into human terms. Any HVAC designer will tell you the human body converts sugars and carbohydrates into “work” at the rate of about 100 watts per hour. They know this because they have to account for our body heat when designing air conditioning systems. Therefore it takes 10 hours for a human to deliver one kilowatt hour’s worth of work. At a minimum wage of about $6 an hour, that’s about $60 for the same amount of energy and work the local utility delivers for less than a dime.

If your home uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity energy per month, your equivalent human staff will cost $60,000 per month at minimum wage, before FICA and insurance, to do the same amount of work needed to provide you with your modern lifestyle. That doesn’t count the staff you’d need to feed and house your staff.

The arithmetic makes it fairly obvious why so many people were slaves, back in the “good old green days” of 100 percent renewable energy. Why, even the super-wealthy royalty would have gone broke if they’d had to pay their staff a wage.

If our culture had continued to charge the amount energy was actually worth when people had to do the work and only royalty could afford leisure, things might not be going so out of sorts soon. But we didn’t charge each other the replacement cost of fossil energy, we charged the so-called production cost (with a generous profit), which given a source that grows harder to produce and will eventually run out, wasn’t the correct long-term price model at all.

So what is a real green lifestyle and economy going to be like, really?

From what I read of the past, nothing I look forward to, personally. “Green” is probably a lot fewer people who do a lot more work to feed themselves and, if you’re lucky enough to get on with a sailing outfit, a lot more time spent eating salt meat and picking oakum, hopefully in climates friendlier to living year-round than our climate is locally. Remember, 150 years ago, even the Ute people only visited Vail in the summer.

When it’s all said and done, I still don’t believe covering a parking lot that primarily serves vacationers who use jet aircraft that burn about 40 pounds of non-renewable oil equivalent per mile with solar panels will be worth the time I’ve spent chuckling about it. A “green” airport? As the Daily’s own Don Rogers once said, in response to a question from a county commissioner a few years ago regarding the best way to make Eagle County green, “You could close the airport.”

Bill Sepmeier lives in Sweetwater.

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