Humans Need Electricity to Live Well
I have just finished watching Michael Moore’s latest film Planet of the Humans. I recommend it. It’s available for no cost on Youtube.
I think it’s fair to say that a recurring theme of Mr. Moore’s film career has been devoted to the negative effects of Corporate Capitalism on individuals and communities. In this latest film, he points out that certain Corporate Capitalists have managed to use the Climate Change meme to enrich themselves by building popular but ultimately inefficient – and environmentally costly – methods to generate electricity. They have done this, though, with the active support of many environmental groups. Mr. Moore’s rudeness in pointing this out has led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth among many Climate Change activists (Search for “Planet of the Humans Criticism” to hear the wailing).
Leaving aside the physics of photocells, generating electricity is relatively simple. Long ago, a man discovered that a current can be produced by passing a piece of copper wire through a magnetic field. Other men discovered that if you wound a bunch of wire around a core and mounted that core on a shaft mounted in a magnetic case, you could generate a lot of electricity by spinning the shaft. The device was called a dynamo – or generator or alternator if you’re talking about cars and trucks. The environmental problem has always been how to spin the shaft of the dynamo.
The genius Nicola Tesla invented the modern dynamo about a century ago – and with it most of modern civilization. A man named Westinghouse licensed his design and used it to build a generating plant using the power of Niagara Falls to spin the dynamos. (Sadly, the naïve Tesla gave up his royalties in the design and died poor). Since water power like Niagara wasn’t available everywhere, steam turbines were made to turn the dynamos. Various fuels have been used to heat the water to make the steam to turn the dynamos – wood, oil, coal, or – more recently - natural gas. In other words, we still generate electricity mostly by burning things, as we have been doing for heat and light for about 50,000 years.
Nuclear power held some promise to escape from fossil fuels, but the common nuclear reactors using Uranium are sometimes dangerous and produce dangerous radioactive waste. It’s a dilemma.
In the early days of atomic research, the scientists at the Oak Ridge Lab built a working generating plant using an element less radioactive than Uranium – Thorium. The trouble was that a Thorium reactor couldn’t produce the type of Uranium or Plutonium that could be used in nuclear bombs, so the research was stopped.
From what I have read, Thorium reactors seem promising as a relatively environmentally safe alternative to burning things. Because of the physics involved in the Thorium reaction, Thorium reactors can’t melt down or explode like Uranium reactors, and they can even digest the nuclear waste produced by Uranium reactors. Thorium is fairly common in the Earth’s crust, and supposedly can be produced efficiently without much environmental harm. I think the development of Thorium power is essential if we’re to convert electric power generation away from fossil fuels.
Coal and petroleum are called fossil fuels for a reason – they are the fossilized remains of plants and animals laid down eons ago. I am not so worried about the CO2 contribution to Global Warming – I consider that solar activity has much more effect on our climate than CO2 – I fear more the acid rain and atmospheric Mercury generated by burning coal. Forests everywhere are damaged by acid rain, and we are warned against eating too much fish because of their measured Mercury content. This has to stop. Thorium power seems a good alternative for generating the electricity we want.
We all want electricity, after all. We want lights, heat, TV, telephones, computers, and all the things of modern life that electricity provides. Without it, life would be brutally difficult. It’s a wonderful phenomenon of nature that we have discovered and turned to our service. We just have to develop a better way to produce it.