This is my personal thoughts, opinions and musings place. I will also rant about things, especially politically-correct things that irritate me. And sci-fi. Did I mention sci-fi? There'll be lots of sci-fi stuff here. And movies, too. Mmmmm... Movies

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Seaquest and the bane of free power

I hadn't fully realized before how much of a utopian pipedream the show Seaquest, DSV really was. I think it wasn't until the episode about free underwater power generation that I finally saw the show for what it was.

To understand the utopia, we have to understand what, exactly, is free power. Or, indeed, what is power. According to the NB Power website, power is the rate at which electricity is consumed. So, free power is power that costs the consumer of that electricity nothing. Trouble is, it's an impossible dream. Much like free medicine, you can only ignore the realities of the situation on the ground for so long before it starts to collapse.

Many people claim that there's an abundance of free energy out there: solar, wind, water, etc. and that we should therefore abandon fossil fuels. They are, of course, absolutely correct. The sun is our main source of free light and heat for the entire planet(for only 12 hours a day), and much of it is wasted if not collected by solar panels. Winds blows regardless of what we do and spinning turbines can make use of it.

However, though sunlight and windpower are essentially free, they're also incredibly useless. We, at our present level of technology, are consumers of electricity. Even our nuclear power plants are basically giant kettles that produce electricity the old-fashioned way, by spinning turbines. We can't use sunlight or windpower or even nuclear power directly, it must be converted into something useful.

It is that conversion that trips up any idea of free electricity. You need plants to assemble the solar panels, you need plants to manufacture the components of which those solar panels are made, you need to manufacture auxilary supplies such as nuts and bolts and the like. You need to ship the assembled panels to their final installation site at some solar farm, which means you need vehicles, fuel for those vehicles and you need roads. Once you've got it assembled, you need transmission lines(or batteries, choose your poison), you need distribution stations, etc, etc, etc. And all of this needs power of its own, and more importantly, it needs people to operate every step of the process, and people don't work for free, at least not in normal societies. And on top of it all, all this equipment, roads, supplies and people have to be replaced, repaired and educated on a continuous basis. In other words, it's a never-ending money pit.

“But we wouldn't need to rely on oil and we wouldn't have to pay for the fuel of our electricity!” people say. And that would be really great. But solar panels require huge tracts of land and wind turbines require a place where the blows in right direction at the right speed on a relatively consistent basis. The wind doesn't blow the same way everywhere at the same time, and there are many, many places in the world where the sun doesn't shine 12 hours a day. Those places need a constant supply of electricity just like the rest of the world, and since solar power can only be used half the day, the panels need to generate twice your daily requirement during the daylight hours. It might be better if the power collection and conversion happened in orbit and was somehow beamed to the surface, but that, too, involves massive engineering and human costs that I don't even want to consider at the moment.

In the Seaquest episode, they hooked up the country to underwater generators that used the tides and the electricity was going to be free, because . They even went so far as to disconnect the rest of the power grid. The lights went on, the underwater generator blew up and the lights went out. It would've been far more realistic if instead of bad engineering(isn't that always the case in ultra-socialist utopias?) turning off the lights, they had an accountant look at their books and say, “Wait a minute! How do you intend to pay for the upkeep of this station? Where will you find the money to pay the deep-sea divers who don't come cheap?”

Do you want to know more?
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