I was reading about the new Hyperion mini-nuke power generator [h/t Instapundit] and as I read through the possible uses, it occurred to me that such generators would be very useful things to have in the event of almost any natural or manmade disaster. This in turn led me to think about how “alternative” electricity sources, i.e., wind and solar would fare under disaster conditions.
We all should think hard about this before we put all our energy eggs in the fragile alternative basket.
The Achilles heel of alternative sources is their inherent unreliability. Wind and solar produce electricity on mother nature’s schedule and under nature’s conditions. Since we cannot store the power they generate, this unreliability alone makes them largely useless for providing a significant percentage of our power needs. Even when they do crank out the power, they do so only under ideal conditions. Even normal extremes of wind, rain, snow, sandstorms, etc. routinely take such systems offline. Since they harvest energy from natural forces, their physical infrastructure must be exposed to those forces for them to work. When those forces become extreme, that infrastructure will take damage. Clearly, major disasters like hurricanes, massive blizzards, earthquakes, etc. would make them completely useless for extended periods.
The marketing imagery for solar and wind power always shows the systems generating power on clear, sunny days. They don’t show them operating at midnight in a blizzard. Yet, a realistic power source must be able to do just that. It must be able to generate power in freakish and unpredictable circumstances. The marketing also implies that solar and wind power work in a decentralized manner, but in order for them to produce serious power, such as that needed to heat a northern home in the winter, they need a lot of room and that means that the power generation must be far from its consumption point. If some disaster occurs, people won’t have local power when the power grid goes down.
Since most leftists today advocate using alternative sources as the primary energy sources for the entire planet, we should also think about the effects that planet-wide changes and disasters could have on them.
If global warming does turn out to have the kind of extreme effects that many of its proponents claim, alternative sources would fare worse than they do now. Increased humidity would lead to more rainy days, cutting the efficiency of solar panels. Increased violent weather would knock wind and solar offline. One of the nightmare global warming scenarios has the oceanic conveyor system shutting down, which would block the transport of heat from the equator to the northern latitudes. In this scenario, global warming would make the northern latitudes colder and snowfall heavier. So, at a time when they would need more power for heat, they would experience weather that would disrupt their energy generation!
We also need to plan for more freakish events such as volcanic winter. In April of 1815, the volcano of Mount Tambora, exploded in the largest eruption seen in 1,600 years. It triggered a world wide plunge in temperature, creating the “Year Without a Summer” in 1816. Imagine such an event in the future with everyone dependent on an energy grid that goes offline in bad weather!
Mini-nukes such as the Hyperion system represent the near perfect disaster energy source. First, such systems are completely insensitive to weather. They operate day or night, in any extreme from the Antarctic to the Equator, from the bottom of the ocean to outer space. Their small size means they don’t even require an extensive power grid. Individual buildings or neighborhoods could have their own reactors providing heat and power over very robust short transmission systems such as underground wires and pipes. The Hyperion system is small enough that it would not be damaged by an earthquake. At the worst, you would just need to tap new cables into it.
People in the developing world would benefit the most from this technology. Simply providing a reactor that could provide clean drinking water in almost any extremity would be a massive humanitarian boon. Insulating them from price shocks of fossil fuels would be even better, long term.
Mini-nukes would also provide power in the case of some future planet-spanning war. Check out the science fiction section of your local book store for possible scenarios. Having a reactor in the basement that produces electricity for five years would be a big bonus in case of a zombie outbreak (or a more prosaic biological or nuclear war).
A lot of advocates of alternative energy seem to work from an unconscious conception that energy is to some degree a luxury good. They believe that we can live just as safe, healthy and well without it. Working from this conception, they plan in a cavalier manner, assuming that conditions will always be ideal and predictable, and if not, well, we can do without luxuries if we have to.
In reality, energy is the heart of our lives. Without it most of us will die with days. Losing 50% of our energy during a northeastern blizzard would kill millions. Sustained shortages of energy would kill more slowly but just as surely as we reverted back to the horrific lives of our ancestors. We need to think about rare scenarios because we are so dependent on energy that it would take only the occurrence of one such scenario to destroy everything.
People who advocate alternative energy need to tear their eyes away from the marketing brochures and instead try think hard about how to keep an old woman in the slums of Detroit warm in the heart of a once-in-50-years blizzard. If they can’t do that, they need to shelve their plans.