From my spouse who observes that we should, “File this under things you can’t make up,” a BBC story:
An expedition team which set sail from Plymouth on a 5,000-mile carbon emission-free trip to Greenland have been rescued by an oil tanker.
I’m presuming that the ship in the story is the one described on this website. I don’t think that they got in trouble primarily due to their unpowered “carbon-free” ship. I think they got in trouble primarily because they took a small sailing yacht into arctic waters. They might have gotten into trouble even if they used 21st Century technology to drive their ship. On the other hand, having even a small engine on board that did not depend on a tranquil environment in order to function most likely would have kept them from capsizing.
This little humorous incident highlights a serious problem with wind and solar power that I have written about before. Wind and solar systems harvest low-density ambient energy. This requires that their transducers, the mechanisms that convert the ambient energy into electricity, must be very large, lightweight and exposed to all the forces of nature. This exposure in turn makes the systems very susceptible to damage from environmental extremes.
To highlight this fact, Let’s compare two ships on the technological extremes: a pure sailing ship such as a clipper ship and a nuclear submarine.
The clipper ship is an environmentalist wet dream. It’s built of “sustainable” wood and driven by the wind acting on thousands of square yards of sail. The nuclear submarine by contrast is an environmentalist nightmare. It’s built of “unattainable” metals and driven by a nuclear reactor.
How do environmental extremes affect each type of ship?
As with contemporary wind and solar power schemes, the clipper ship harvests energy with large areas of lightweight sail. In extremes of wind, those sails shred and become useless. The clipper ship can be becalmed by doldrums and ripped apart by hurricanes. When faced with extreme winds the clipper ship can only take down its sails and struggle to keep its bow into the waves. If this happens near the shore, the ship will be driven helplessly onto the shore and broken apart. Even under good conditions the clipper ship can only move when and where the wind permits.
The nuclear reactor on the sub by contrast is a dense energy source that, except for cooling, can be isolated from extremes of nature. A nuclear reactor works in all types of weather. It even works in the vacuum of space. The reactor provides not only motive power for the sub but also the energy to completely generate the environment in terms of heat, light and air. Nuclear submarines travel where they want, when they want, limited only by undersea geography. They travel as easily through hurricanes and under ice floes as they do through doldrums or pleasant breezes.
Needless to say, the energy-rich life of the sailors aboard a nuclear submarine is far more pleasant and less dangerous than life aboard a wind-powered clipper ship ever was.
In the end, our current debate about our energy sources boils down to a debate between the opposed concepts of a civilization built upon the limitations of clipper ships versus a civilization built upon the limitations of nuclear submarines. We can have energy-poor lives of grueling effort, ever at risk from the forces of nature, or we can have energy-rich lives where we interact with nature in the manner of our choosing.
There won’t be any alien oil tankers flying by to haul our collective asses out the freezing water if we choose wrong.