The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 26th, 2012

Technology 101

(Original published December 21st, 2011)

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.

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FT110: “You can’t blame our dependence on foreign oil for high gas prices AND say that producing more domestic oil won’t lower gas prices.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 23rd, 2012

Fundamental Truth

The Combination of Low Demand and High Supply caused Oil Prices to Fall over 70% by 1986

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a cartel.  Made up currently of Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.  Their purpose is to set oil quotas for their oil-producing members.  To limit the amount of oil they bring to market.  To reduce supply.  And increase oil prices.  At least that’s the idea.  It’s been hard to keep the individual OPEC members from cheating, though.  And a lot do.  Often selling more than their quota.  Because when oil prices are high selling a few percentages above their quota can be very profitable.  Unless everyone else does so as well.  Which they usually do.  For their choice is either not to cheat and not share in any of those ‘excess’ profits (beyond their agreed to quota).  Or cheat, too.  Thereby increasing supply.  And lowering oil prices.  Not something any oil producer wants to do.  But it’s the only way to share in any of those ‘excess’ profits.

But that’s not the only problem OPEC has.  There are a lot of oil producers who aren’t members of OPEC.  Who can bring oil to market in any quantity they choose.  Especially when they see the high price OPEC is charging.  OPEC’s high price allows non-OPEC suppliers to sell a lot of oil at a slightly lower price and reap huge profits.  Which puts pressure on the OPEC target price.  Forcing them to lower their target price.  For if they don’t lower their price they will lose oil sales to those non-OPEC producers.  Which is exactly what happened in the late Seventies.  While OPEC was cutting back on production (to raise prices) the non-OPEC nations were increasing production.  And taking over market share with their lower prices.  Causing OPEC to reverse policy and increase production during the mid-Eighties.  Giving us the 1980s oil glut.

Of course, this rise in non-OPEC production was a direct result of the 1973 Oil Crisis.  Many of the OPEC members are Muslim nations.  Who don’t like the state of Israel.  In response to the West’s support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973) OPEC announced an oil embargo on those nations who helped Israel.  Giving us the 1973 oil crisis.  Where this sudden reduction in supply caused the price of oil to soar.  Making the oil business a very profitable business.  Causing those non-OPEC producers to enter the market.  Then the Iranian Revolution (1979) disrupted Iranian crude production.  Keeping Iranian oil off the market.  This reduction in demand caused oil prices to rise.  Then Jimmy Carter broke off diplomatic relations with the Iranian state.  And boycotted their oil when it returned to the market.  Further encouraging the non-OPEC producers to bring more oil to market.  Meanwhile U.S. demand fell because of those high prices.  And our switch to smaller, 4-cyclinder, front wheel drive cars.  Saying goodbye to our beloved muscle cars of the Sixties and Seventies.  And the V-8 engine.  The combination of low demand and high supply caused oil prices to fall over 70% by 1986.  Giving us the oil glut of the 1980s.  When gasoline was cheap.  Enticing the V-8 engine back into the market.

Improved Fuel Economy AND Increased Oil Supplies can Reduce the Price at the Pump

So, yes, Virginia.  The amount of oil entering the market matters.  The more of it there is the cheaper it will be.  As history has shown.  When less oil entered the market prices rose.  When more oil entered the market prices fell.  And anything that can affect the supply of oil making it to market will affect the price of oil.  (And everything downstream of oil.  Jet fuel.  Diesel.  And gasoline.)  Wars.  Regional instability.  And governmental regulation. 

So what are things that will bring more oil to market?  Well there’s the obvious.  You drill for more oil.  This is so obvious but a lot of people refuse to accept this economic principle.  As supply increases prices fall.  The 1980s oil glut proved this.  Even John Maynard Keynes has graphs showing this in his Keynesian economics.  The economics of choice for governments everywhere.   Yet there are Keynesian politicians who avert their eyes to this economic principle.  So there’s that.  More drilling.  You can also make the permitting process easier to drill for oil.  You can open up federal lands currently closed to drilling.  And once you find oil you bring it to market.  As quickly as you can.  And few things are quicker than pipelines.  From the oil fields.  To the oil refineries.  (And then jet fuel, diesel and gasoline pipelines from the refineries to dispensing centers).  So before oil fields are ready to produce you start building pipelines from those fields to the refineries.  Or you build new refineries.

Improving fuel economy did help reduce our demand for imported oil in the Eighties.  As well as lowered the price for that imported oil.  But it wasn’t fuel economy alone.  The non-OPEC nations were increasing production from the mid-Seventies through the mid-Eighties.  Without that oil flooding the market oil prices wouldn’t have fallen 70%.  And they won’t fall again if we ONLY try to reduce our demand for foreign oil.  For reducing demand is marginal at best in reducing oil prices. 

Only if we Drill and Build Pipelines can we Reduce the Price at the Pump

For there are no electric airplanes.  The cost to electrify all railroad tracks is too prohibitive to consider.  The capital costs to build that electrical infrastructure.  The maintenance costs to maintain it.  And the electricity costs from the increased demand for electrical power while supply remains the same.  Or falls.  Because excessive regulation inhibits the building of new power plants.  And speeds up the shutdown of older plants.  Especially coal-fired because they pollute too much.  And hydro power.  Because of the environmental impact of dams.  Severely straining our electric grids.  And moving into electric cars will stress our electric grids even further.  Leading to brown outs.  And rolling blackouts.   Or worse.  Causing wires to overheat and sag, coming into contact with trees.  Shorting out.  Causing cascading blackouts as power plants disconnect from the grid to prevent damage from the resulting current surges.  Like they did in the Northeast Blackout of 2003.

You can’t replace oil with electricity.  In some cases there is just no electric equivalent.  Such as the airplane.  Or the cost of moving from oil to electricity is just prohibitive.  Such as updating the nation’s electrical infrastructure to meet an exploding demand.  Which leaves oil.  We need it.  And will keep using it.  Because there is no better alternative.  Yet.  So we need to produce it.  And do everything we can to help bring that oil to market.  Not fight against it.  And it all starts with drilling. 

We must drill.  Bring that oil up from under the ground.  Put it into a pipeline.  And pump it to a refinery.  If we do this enough we will be less dependent on foreign oil.  And have more control over the price at the pump.

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Music, Radio Transmitters, Radio Receivers, CD Players, Compression, MP3 Players, Internet, YouTube, Live Streaming and Music on Demand

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 29th, 2012

Technology 101

The Roaring Twenties brought Electrical Power and Broadcast Radio into our Homes

We take music for granted today.  We can listen to pretty much anything we want to.  At any time.  In any place.  In the home.  In the car.  At the gym.  It’s nice.  You can listen to some of the most beautiful music at your convenience and leisure.  It wasn’t always like this, though.  During the time Edvard Grieg composed his masterpieces few could listen to them.  Unless you attended a live performance.  Which weren’t that readily available.  Unless you lived in a big city.  Where a symphony orchestra could include some of his music in a performance.  But you had to listen to what they played.  And what they played was the only music you were familiar with.  Unless you had a friend with a piano.  Who could read sheet music.  And was a concert-level pianist.  Again, something not that common.

But today you can click on a computer link and listen to almost any obscure piece of music there is.  From Grieg’s beautiful Bådnlåt (At the Cradle), lyric piece for piano, Op. 68/5.  To something really esoteric like Sparks’ As I Sit Down To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral.  You can listen to them.  You can buy them.  Download them to a portable MP3 player.  And take them anywhere.  Just imagine trying to do this in 1899.  Going to the lake.  And wanting to listen to Grieg’s new lyric piece for piano.  Opus 68.  Number 5.  At the Cradle.  Unless you took a piano and a concert-level pianist with you that just wasn’t going to happen.  But this all changed.  Beginning around the dawn of the 20th century.

Nikola Tesla had recently won his war with Thomas Edison.  His AC power replaced Edison’s DC power as the standard.  And in the 1920s we were electrifying the country.  We began to generate and transmit AC power across the land.  To businesses.  And to homes.  Where we could plug in the new electrical appliances coming to market.  We were working on another new technology during this time.  Something that could plug in at home to the new electrical power.  The radio.  This technology had something to do with electromagnetic fields and waves.  Transmitted between antennas.  One on a transmitter.  And one on a receiver.  As long as the transmitter and the receiver were tuned to the same frequency.  The first use of this new technology was in the form of a wireless telegraph.  Which few people had in their homes.  These were more useful to communicate with others who were not connected by telegraph lines.  Like ships at sea.  Where we sent Morse code (those dots and dashes that spelled words).  Which worked well.  As long as all the ships didn’t tried to communicate at the same time on the same frequency.  But transmitting speech or music was a different manner.  Because everyone talks more or less in the same band of frequencies.  And notes played on one violin tend to play at the same frequency on another violin.  So if some radio transmitters broadcasted different concerts at the same time you wouldn’t hear a nice concert on your radio.  You’d hear a cacophony of noise.  To get an idea what that would sound like open up three or four browser windows on your computer.  And play a different song on YouTube in each.  What you hear will not be music.  But noise.

In the Eighties we traded our Phonograph Needles for Laser Beams in our CD Players

Of course, this didn’t stop the development of commercial broadcast radio.  For we tune radio transmitters and radio receivers to the same resonant frequency.  The transmitter transmitting at one frequency all of the time. While the radio receiver could tune in to different frequencies to listen to different radio broadcasts.  When you turned the radio tuning dial you changed what resonant frequency your receiver ‘listened’ to.  Which was basically a filter to block all frequencies but the tuned frequency from entering your radio.  We call that frequency the carrier signal.  Typically just a plain old sinusoidal wave form at a one frequency that we imprint the information of the speech or music on.  The transmitter takes the music waveform and modulates it on the carrier signal.  Then broadcasts the signal on the broadcast antenna.  The receiver then captures this signal on its antenna.  And demodulates it.  Pulling the musical imprint from the carrier signal.  And restoring it to its original condition.  Which the radio than amplifies and sends to a speaker.  I left some steps out of the process.  But you get the gist.  The key to successful broadcast radio was the ability to transform the source signal (speech or music) into another signal.  One that we could transmit and receive.  And transform back into the source signal.

The Roaring Twenties was a Neil Armstrong moment on earth.  It was one giant leap for mankind.  For it was in this decade that the modern world began.  Thanks to Nikola Tesla and his AC power.  Which allowed us the ability to plug in radios in our homes.  And power the great radio transmitters to get the signal to our houses.  Tesla, incidentally, created radio technology, too.  Well, Tesla, and Guglielmo Marconi.  (Patent disputes flared between these two greats about who was first.)  Great technological advancement.  Created during a time of limited government and low taxes.  That unleashed an explosive amount of creativity and invention.  The Eighties was another such decade.

The Eighties launched the digital age.  The world of bits and bytes.  1s and 0s.  Digital watches.  Clocks.  Calculators.  PCs.  And, of course, our music.  For the Eighties gave us the compact disc.  The CD.  Music that didn’t wear out like our vinyl records.  And didn’t pop or hiss with age.  Because a CD player didn’t have a phonograph needle.  That rode the groves on our vinyl records.  It had something far more futuristic.  A laser beam.  That reads information encoded into the CD.  Information encoded onto a reflective layer through a series of pits.  During playback the laser either reflects or doesn’t reflect.  This information is than processed into a series of 1s and 0s.  Then converted into the analog waveform of the source material.  And becomes music again.

The Eighties gave us the Digital Age which led to the Internet and Music on Demand

This process is similar to the process of broadcast radio.  Not in any technological way.  But by changing a source signal into something else.  And then converting it back again.  In the case of the CD we sample an analog signal (i.e., an audio recording).  By taking ‘snapshots’ of it at regular intervals.  Then convert these snapshots into a digital format.  And then transfer this digital information to the reflective layer on a CD.  Those 1s and 0s.  When we play it back the laser reads these 1s and 0s.  Then converts these digital snapshots back into the original audio signal.  Sort of like modulating and demodulating a signal.  Only instead of modulating we’re converting from analog to digital.  Then vice versa.

The quality of the digital format depends on how much information each snapshot contains.  And the interval we sample them at.  Larger chunks of information taken in short intervals contain a lot more information.  And improve the quality of the sound.  But it will also take up a lot of space on those CDs.  Limiting the number of songs we can encode on them.  Which lead to compression.  And MP3s.  Which worked on the premise that there’s a lot of music in music.  But we don’t necessarily hear all of that music.  Some sounds mask out other sounds.  Certain frequencies we barely hear.  So while the CDs tried to reproduce the music as faithfully as possible, we learned that we could discard some of the information in the music without reducing the quality of the music much.  This saved a lot of space on CDs and portable MP3 players.  Allowed faster downloads on the Internet.  And live streaming.

The Roaring Twenties changed our world.  Modernized it.  And gave us many things.  Including broadcast radio.  And music in our homes we never had before.  And the Eighties also changed our world.  Further modernizing it.  Giving us the digital age.  That led to the Internet.  And music on demand like we never had before.  Where we can listen to anything.  No matter how obscure.  It’s now all available at our fingertips.  To listen online.  Or to buy and download to a portable device.  From Grieg to Sparks.  And everything in between.

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Flint Tools, Levers, Wheels, Animal Power, Water Power, Wind Power, Steam Power, Electrical Power, Nuclear Power and Solar Power

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 22nd, 2012

Technology 101

Man harnessed the Energy in Moving Water with a Water Wheel

When prehistoric man first chipped a piece of flint to make a sharp edge he learned something.  It made work easier.  And his life better.  This tool concentrated his energy into that sharp edge.  Increasing the amount of energy he could put to work.  Allowing him to skin an animal quickly and efficiently like never before.  Making better hides to protect him from the elements.  Yes, he said, this tool is good.  But in a somewhat less sophisticated manner of speech.

From that moment forward it has been man’s singular desire to improve on this first tool.  To find ways to concentrate energy and put it to work.  Levers allowed him to move heavier things.  Wheels allowed him to move heavier loads.  The block and tackle allowed him to lift or pull heavier weights.  Harnessing animals allowed him to do all of these things even better.  And we would use animal power for millennia.  Even today they still provide the primary source of power for some less developed countries.

But animals have their limitations.  They’re big, they eat, drink, pee and poop.  Which doesn’t make them an ideal source of power to turn a mill wheel.  A big wheel that grinds grain into flour.  It’s heavy.  But it doesn’t have to spin fast.  Just for long periods of time.  Then man had another moment like he did when he chipped a piece of flint.  He noticed in his environment that things moved.  The wind.  And the water in a river.  The wind could blow fast or slow.  Or not at all.  But the water flow was steady.  And reliable.  So man harnessed the energy in the moving water with a water wheel.  And connected it to his mill wheel via some belts and pulleys.  And where there was no water available he harnessed the less reliable wind.

The Steam Engine eliminated the Major Drawbacks of Water Power and Wind Power 

The water flowed day and night.  You didn’t have to feed it or clean up after it.  And a strong current had a lot of concentrated energy.  Which could do a lot of work.  Far more than a sharpened piece of flint.  Which was ideal for our first factories.  The water wheel shaft became a main drive shaft that drove other machines via belts and pulleys.  The main drive shaft ran the length of the factory.  Workers could operate machinery underneath it by engaging it to the main drive shaft through a belt and pulley.  Take a trip to the past and visit a working apple mill powered by a water wheel.  It’s fascinating.  And you’ll be able to enjoy some fresh donuts and hot cider.  During the harvest, of course.

While we built factories along rivers we used that other less reliable source of energy to cross oceans.  Wind power.  It wasn’t very reliable.  And it wasn’t very concentrated.  But it was the only way you could cross an ocean.  Which made it the best way to cross an ocean.  Sailors used everything on a sailing ship from the deck up to catch the wind and put it to work.  Masts, rigging and sails.  Which were costly.  Required a large crew.  And took up a lot of space and added a lot of weight.  Space and weight that displaced revenue-earning cargo.

The steam engine eliminated the major drawbacks of water power and wind power.  By replacing the water wheel with a steam engine we could build factories anywhere.  Not just on rivers.  And the steam engine let ships cross the oceans whenever they wanted to.  Even when the wind didn’t blow.  And more space was available for revenue-earning cargo.  When these ships reached land we transferred their cargoes to trains.  Pulled by steam locomotives.  That could carry this revenue-earning cargo across continents.   This was a huge step forward.  Boiling water by burning coal to make steam.  A highly concentrated energy source.  A little of it went a long way.  And did more work for us than ever.  Far more than a water wheel.  It increased the amount of work we could do so much that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

With Nuclear Power our Quest to find more Concentrated Forms of Energy came to an End 

We replaced coal with oil in our ships and locomotives.  Because it was easier to transport.  Store.  And didn’t need people to shovel it into a boiler.  Oil burners were more efficient.  We even used it to generate a new source of power.  Electrical power.  We used it to boil water at electrical generating plants to spin turbines that turned electrical generators.  We could run pipelines to feed these plants.  Making the electricity they generated even more efficient.  And reliable.  Soon diesel engines replaced the oil burners in ships and trains.  Allowed trucks and buses to run where the trains didn’t.  And gasoline allowed people to go anywhere the trains and buses didn’t go.

The modern economy ran on petroleum.  And electricity.  We even returned to the water wheel to generate electricity.  By building dams to build huge reservoirs of water at elevations.  Creating huge headwater forces.  Concentrating more energy in water.  Which we funneled down to the lower elevation.  Making it flow through high-speed water turbines connected to electrical generators.  That spun far faster than their water wheel ancestors.  Producing huge amounts of reliable electrical power.  We even came up with a more reliable means to create electrical power.  With an even more concentrated fuel.  Fissile material gave us nuclear power.  During the oil shocks of the Seventies the Japanese made a policy change to expand their use of nuclear power.  To insulate them from future oil supply shocks.  Which it did.  While in America the movie The China Syndrome came out around the time of the incident at Three Mile Island.  And killed nuclear power in America.  (But as a consolation prize we disproved the idea of Keynesian stimulus.  When the government created massive inflation with Keynesian policy.  Printing money.  Which raised prices without providing any new economic activity.  Causing instead high inflation and high unemployment.  What we call stagflation.  The Japanese got a big Keynesian lesson about a decade later.  When their massive asset bubble began to deflate giving them their Lost Decade.)

And with nuclear power that quest to find more ways to make better and more efficient use of concentrated energy from that first day we used a flint tool came to an end.  Global warming alarmists are killing sensible sources of energy that have given us the modern world.  Even animal rights activists are fighting against one of the cleanest sources of power we’ve ever used.  Water power.  Because damming rivers harms ecosystems in the rivers we dam.  Instead political pressures have turned the hands of time backwards by using less concentrated and less efficient sources of energy.  Wind power.  And solar power.  Requiring far greater infrastructure installations to capture far less amounts of energy from these sources.  Power plants using wind power and solar power will require acres of land for windmills and solar panels.  And it will take many of these power plants to produce what a single power plant using coal, oil, natural gas or fissile material can generate.  Making power more costly than it ever has been.  Despite wind and sunshine being free.  And when the great civilizations become bankrupt chasing bankrupt energy policies we will return to a simpler world.  A world where we don’t make and use power.  Or machinery.  Much like our flint-tool using ancestors.  Albeit with a more sophisticated way of expressing ourselves.

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The Horse, Waterwheel, Steam Engine, Electricity, DC and AC Power, Power Transmission and Electric Motors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 21st, 2011

Technology 101

A Waterwheel, Shaft, Pulleys and Belts made Power Transmission Complex

The history of man is the story of man controlling and shaping our environment.  Prehistoric man did little to change his environment.  But he started the process.  By making tools for the first time.  Over time we made better tools.  Taking us into the Bronze Age.  Where we did greater things.  The Sumerians and the Egyptians led their civilization in mass farming.  Created some of the first food surpluses in history.  In time came the Iron Age.  Better tools.  And better plows.  Fewer people could do more.  Especially when we attached an iron plow to one horsepower.  Or better yet, when horses were teamed together to produce 2 horsepower.  3 horsepower.  Even 4 horsepower.  The more power man harnessed the more work he was able to do.

This was the key to controlling and shaping our environment.  Converting energy into power.  A horse’s physiology can produce energy.  By feeding, watering and resting a horse we can convert that energy into power.  And with that power we can do greater work than we can do with our own physiology.  Working with horse-power has been the standard for millennia.  Especially for motive power.  Moving things.  Like dragging a plow.  But man has harnessed other energy.  Such as moving water.  Using a waterwheel.  Go into an old working cider mill in the fall and you’ll see how man made power from water by turning a wheel and a series of belts and pulleys.  The waterwheel turned a main shaft that ran the length of the work area.  On the shaft were pulleys.  Around these pulleys were belts that could be engaged to transfer power to a work station.  Where it would turn another pulley attached to a shaft.  Depending on the nature of the work task the rotational motion of the main shaft could be increased or decreased with gears.  We could change it from rotational to reciprocating motion.  We could even change the axis of rotation with another type of gearing.

This was a great step forward in advancing civilization.  But the waterwheel, shaft, pulleys and belts made power transmission complex.  And somewhat limited by the energy available in the moving water.  A great step forward was the steam engine.  A large external combustion engine.  Where an external firebox heated water to steam.  And then that steam pushed a piston in a cylinder.  The energy in expanding steam was far greater than in moving water.  It produced far more power.  And could do far more work.  We could do so much work with the steam engine that it kicked off the Industrial Revolution.

Nikola Tesla created an Electrical Revolution using AC Power

The steam engine also gave us more freedom.  We could now build a factory anywhere we wanted to.  And did.  We could do something else with it, too.  We could put it on tracks.  And use it to pull heavy loads across the country.  The steam locomotive interconnected the factories to the raw materials they consumed.  And to the cities that bought their finished goods.  At a rate no amount of teamed horses could equal.  Yes, the iron horse ended man’s special relationship with the horse.  Even on the farm.  Where steam engines powered our first tractors.  Giving man the ability to do more work than ever.  And grow more food than ever.  Creating greater food surpluses than the Sumerians and Egyptians could ever grow.  No matter how much of their fertile river banks they cultivated.  Or how much land they irrigated.

Steam engines were incredibly powerful.  But they were big.  And very complex.  They were ideal for the farm and the factory.  The steam locomotive and the steamship.  But one thing they were not good at was transmitting power over distances.  A limitation the waterwheel shared.  To transmit power from a steam engine required a complicated series of belts and pulleys.  Or multiple steam engines.  A great advance in technology changed all that.  Something Benjamin Franklin experimented with.  Something Thomas Edison did, too.  Even gave us one of the greatest inventions of all time that used this new technology.  The light bulb.  Powered by, of course, electricity.

Electricity.  That thing we can’t see, touch or smell.  And it moves mysteriously through wires and does work.  Edison did much to advance this technology.  Created electrical generators.  And lit our cities with his electric light bulb.  Electrical power lines crisscrossed our early cities.  And there were a lot of them.  Far more than we see today.  Why?  Because Edison’s power was direct current.  DC.  Which had some serious drawbacks when it came to power transmission.  For one it didn’t travel very far before losing much of its power. So electrical loads couldn’t be far from a generator.  And you needed a generator for each voltage you used.  That adds up to a lot of generators.  Great if you’re in the business of selling electrical generators.  Which Edison was.  But it made DC power costly.  And complex.  Which explained that maze of power lines crisscrossing our cities.  A set of wires for each voltage.  Something you didn’t need with alternating current.  AC.  And a young engineer working for George Westinghouse was about to give Thomas Edison a run for his money.  By creating an electrical revolution using that AC power.  And that’s just what Nikola Tesla did.

Transformers Stepped-up Voltages for Power Transmission and Stepped-down Voltages for Electrical Motors

An alternating current went back and forth through a wire.  It did not have to return to the electrical generator after leaving it.  Unlike a direct current ultimately had to.  Think of a reciprocating engine.  Like on a steam locomotive.  This back and forth motion doesn’t do anything but go back and forth.  Not very useful on a train.  But when we convert it to rotational motion, why, that’s a whole other story.  Because rotational motion on a train is very useful.  Just as AC current in transmission lines turned out to be very useful.

There are two electrical formulas that explain a lot of these developments.  First, electrical power (P) is equal to the voltage (V) multiplied by the current (I).  Expressed mathematically, P = V x I.  Second, current (I) is equal to the voltage (V) divided by the electrical resistance (R).  Mathematically, I = V/R.  That’s the math.  Here it is in words.  The greater the voltage and current the greater the power.  And the more work you can do.  However, we transmit current on copper wires.  And copper is expensive.  So to increase current we need to lower the resistance of that expensive copper wire.  But there’s only one way to do that.  By using very thick and expensive wires.  See where we’re going here?  Increasing current is a costly way to increase power.  Because of all that copper.  It’s just not economical.  So what about increasing voltage instead?  Turns out that’s very economical.  Because you can transmit great power with small currents if you step up the voltage.  And Nikola Tesla’s AC power allowed just that.  By using transformers.  Which, unfortunately for Edison, don’t work with DC power.

This is why Nikola Tesla’s AC power put Thomas Edison’s DC power out of business.  By stepping up voltages a power plant could send power long distances.  And then that high voltage could be stepped down to a variety of voltages and connected to factories (and homes).  Electric power could do one more very important thing.  It could power new electric motors.  And convert this AC power into rotational motion.  These electric motors came in all different sizes and voltages to suit the task at hand.  So instead of a waterwheel or a steam engine driving a main shaft through a factory we simply connected factories to the electric grid.  Then they used step-down transformers within the factory where needed for the various work tasks.  Connecting to electric motors on a variety of machines.  Where a worker could turn them on or off with the flick of a switch.  Without endangering him or herself by engaging or disengaging belts from a main drive shaft.  Instead the worker could spend all of his or her time on the task at hand.  Increasing productivity like never before.

Free Market Capitalism gave us Electric Power, the Electric Motor and the Roaring Twenties

What electric power and the electric motor did was reduce the size and complexity of energy conversion to useable power.  Steam engines were massive, complex and dangerous.  Exploding boilers killed many a worker.  And innocent bystander.  Electric power was simpler and safer to use.  And it was more efficient.  Horses were stronger than man.  But increasing horsepower required a lot of big horses that we also had to feed and care for.  Electric motors are smaller and don’t need to be fed.  Or be cleaned up after, for that matter.

Today a 40 pound electric motor can do the work of one 1,500 pound draft horse.  Electric power and the electric motor allow us to do work no amount of teamed horses can do.  And it’s safer and simpler than using a steam engine.  Which is why the Roaring Twenties roared.  It was in the 1920s that this technology began to power American industry.  Giving us the power to control and shape our environment like never before.  Vaulting America to the number one economic power of the world.  Thanks to free market capitalism.  And a few great minds along the way.

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LESSONS LEARNED #72: “Moms are a lot like CEOs. Only with more responsibility, longer hours and less pay.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 30th, 2011

A Genius may have a Brilliant Idea, but it’s an Entrepreneur that brings it to Market

A CEO is a lot like an entrepreneur.  They’re both a cut above the rest.  And can do what few can do.  Bring two worlds together.  The theoretical world inhabited by great thinkers and inventors.  And the practical world inhabited by people who act.  Who take the things the great thinkers and inventors create and give them to us.   There is a difference between the people that inhabit these worlds.  And most can only live in one or the other.  But CEOs and entrepreneurs can live in both.  That’s what makes them special.  Thinkers and inventors possess a genius of theoretical creativity.  But they can do little with their idea.  The action people can build great things (cars, airplanes, buildings, power plants, cell phones, etc.) but only from a construction plan.  Someone else has to have an idea and think and create the construction plan before they can build.  These are the two worlds.  The genius.  And the builders.  And it is the CEO and entrepreneur that bring these two worlds together.

Nikola Tesla was a genius.  A brilliant theoretical thinker.  He created the world in which we live.  But do you know who he is?  What he created?  Probably not.  Unless you’re a Croat.  Because there are probably a lot of statues of him in Croatia. Because he was born there to Serbian parents.  He eventually moved to America.  Got a job with a guy name Thomas Edison.  Who didn’t appreciate his genius.  Or his one particular ‘crazy’ idea.  But George Westinghouse did. 

That ‘crazy’ idea is the AC power we use today.  Thomas Edison was building DC power plants and a DC electric grid.  Despite all the failings of DC distribution (DC power doesn’t travel far requiring lots of generating plants, different voltages have to have their own generating plant, large power loads require very thick and expensive copper wires, etc.).  There was already a DC electrical infrastructure.  And it was Edison’s.  Which he wanted to expand because it would pay him well.

But Tesla’s AC system was better.  Because it could use transformers.  One power generating plant could provide power at a variety of voltages.  You just needed a transformer to get the voltage you wanted.  Also, electrical power is the product of voltage and current.  High power, then, requires either a high voltage or a high current.  High currents require thick, expensive copper wires.  So high voltage was the way to go.  It allowed power to travel farther over thinner wires.  Therefore, it required fewer generating plants.  And a single electric grid (not one for each voltage).  AC power was much more economical than DC power.  And George Westinghouse saw that.  And took Tesla’s brilliant idea and built the AC power generation and distribution system we use today.

The Business of Beautiful, Estée Lauder

You see, Tesla was at home in the lab.  He was a scientist.  Not a salesman.  That’s why he wasn’t an entrepreneur.  Because, just like being a CEO, you need sales skills to be an entrepreneur.  Because you are the number one sales person in your business.  And Edison and Westinghouse were great salesmen.  That’s why they brought a lot of Tesla’s great inventions to market.  And why Tesla did not.  He was just not a sales person.

But Estée Lauder was.  She was always selling.  And creating.  She was the classical entrepreneur.  Her uncle was in the chemistry business making beauty products.  Which fascinated her from a young age.  He taught her the chemistry.  Taught her how to make the products.  How to use the products.  And she did.  Loved them.  And started selling them.  With a passion.

She started creating her own products.  Using her own kitchen as her laboratory.  When not tending to her two sons.  She demonstrated how to use her products.  Gave away free samples.  And sold.  She was always selling.  She started out small.  By herself.  From these humble beginnings she grew to dominate the industry.  She was relentless.  She worked herself to the premier counter space in department stores by redefining the way cosmetics were sold.  Starting with Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.  She visited each counter to ensure they were meeting her high standards.  She gave away free samples.  She demonstrated.  She touched.  Personally applying products on customers.  That’s why when you walk into a department store you’ll see the Estée Lauder counter first.  And you’ll see all the counters selling the same way.  Giving away free samples.  Demonstrating products.  Showing how to apply products.  The Estée Lauder way.

One Smart Cookie, that Mrs. Fields

Debbi Fields liked to bake cookies.  She married young at 19.  To a Stanford graduate.  And aspiring financial consultant.  And about a year later decided to go into the cookie business.  After an incident at a party with her husband and a lot of his snobby associates.  She apparently mispronounced a word.  Said ‘orientated’ instead of ‘oriented’.  A snob pointed out her faux pas.  Sending her home in tears.  Didn’t much like that experience.  And decided to be something more than a ‘just’ a housewife.  Not that there was anything wrong with that.  And she would love being a housewife.  She would raise 5 daughters.  And add another 5 stepchildren in a second marriage.  But the snobs in her husband’s circle did look down on that particular institution.  It was so old fashioned.  It wasn’t progressive.  It wasn’t what people in their circles did.  So they acted like real asses.

Yet they liked her cookies.  Loved them.  Her husband would take them to work.  Where they were a big hit.  Soft and chewy.  Gourmet.  They were different.  When she asked them if she should go into the cookie business, they said it was a bad idea.  The conventional wisdom said crispy cookies were the way to go.  People didn’t want to buy soft and chewy.  They said as they stuffed their mouths with soft and chewy cookies.  And there were others who told her not to do it.  Even her husband doubted her.  But he loved her.  And would support her. She had no business experience.  But she was a hard worker.  And believed in what she was doing.  She got a bank loan to open a cookie store.  Not so much because the banker believed in the business idea.  But because of the good character of her and her husband.  Whatever the outcome, the bank was willing to take a chance.  Because, success or fail, they knew they would repay the loan.

She opened her first store in a mall food court.  Did not sell a single cookie.  Until she used the Estée Lauder sales method.  She gave away free samples.  People tried.  And people liked.  Soft and chewy was a hit.  She grew the company.  Added more stores.  And made a lot of money.  She was very hands on to maintain the quality.  Again, like Estée Lauder.  She visited her stores.  To make sure they maintained her high standards.  Which is why she refused to franchise.  She was too worried about losing that quality.  Which is what made Mrs. Fields cookies better than the competition.  Her husband computerized her operation.  Adding a computer at each store.  All wired to the Internet and tied into her headquarters.  It was state of the art technology.  Allowing more growth.  While retaining full control.  The growth was fast.  Too fast.  The hands-on management didn’t work well with so many stores.  The debt started to pile up.  And then a recession hit.  Her expensive gourmet cookies became too expensive.  And people stopped buying them.  To save the company she had to sell 80% of it.  And the new owners changed the business model.  Franchised stores.  And bumped Debbie Fields from CEO.  But she remained chairman of the board.  And though only a minority shareholder, the business Debbie Fields created continues on.  Her only mistake was being so successful so fast.  And if you’re going to have a fault that’s not a bad one to have.  By the way, don’t forget that she did all of this while raising 5 daughters.  Which probably made the running of the multi-million dollar business the easy part of her life.

Entrepreneurs, CEOS and Moms

Entrepreneurs and CEOs.  They’re a different breed.  They can be both brilliant thinkers like Nikola Tesla.  And aggressive sales people like Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.  Such as Estée Lauder.  And Debbie Fields.  These mothers dominated their industries.  And set the bar for everyone else.  Lauder built an empire that dominates still.  Fields use of technology to streamline operations is a model for business efficiency at Harvard Business School.  Two of America’s most successful entrepreneurs and CEOs.  And both were moms first.

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Energy Drives both Food Prices and the Economy. And Politics.

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 16th, 2011

The Left Promotes and Attacks Electrical Power

The Left wants to get rid of the internal combustion engine and make all cars green.  Plug-ins.  Cars with batteries that charge by plugging them into electrical outlets.  They say it will break our dependence on foreign oil.  And stimulate the economy with new green technology.  For the same reason they want to dot the landscape with high-speed electric trains.  They want to make everything electric.  Because electric motors don’t pollute.

At the same time there is an all out assault on electrical generation in this country.  The nuclear power industry (the closest to a ‘green’ useful source of electricity we have) has been stalled since 1979 thanks to The China Syndrome and Three Mile IslandHydroelectric dams (another ‘green’ source of useful electricity) kill fish and alter the ecosystem.  So we can’t build them anymore.  With two down they’re turning their sights onto fossil fuels.  And they’re locked and loaded (see E.P.A. Proposes New Emission Standards for Power Plants by John Broder and John Collins Rudolf posted 3/16/2011 on The New York Times).

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed the first national standard for emissions of mercury and other toxins from coal-burning power plants on Wednesday, a rule that could lead to the early closing of dozens of generating stations and is certain to be challenged by the utility industry and Republicans in Congress…

She estimated the total annual cost of compliance at about $10 billion, in line with some industry estimates (although some are much higher), and the health and environmental benefits at more than $100 billion a year. She said that households could expect to see their electric bills rise by $3 to $4 a month when the regulation is fully in force after 2015.

With the country struggling to come out of the greatest recession since the Great Depression they want to raise the cost of energy?  For what?  Health and environmental benefits they pull out of the air (there are no ledgers anywhere totaling these costs)?  To offset one of the highest regulatory costs to come down the pike in history?  This is insanity.  One has to ask do they want to push the nation into a depression?  Or are they that ignorant in things economic?

She said that installing and maintaining smokestack scrubbers and other control technology would create 31,000 short-term construction jobs and 9,000 permanent utility sector jobs.

Okay, we increase the cost of electricity forever but we get a few temporary construction jobs.  Construction jobs aside, if you do the math, each of those new permanent jobs will end up costing us over $1 million each year.  In addition to their wages and benefits.  All paid for by the electrical consumer.  The fact that they talk about this as a good thing shows their utter ignorance of things economic.  And contempt for the consumer.

The National Association of Manufacturers said the proposed rule would lead to higher electricity prices and significant job losses.

“In addition, electric system reliability could be compromised by coal retirements and new environmental construction projects caused by this proposed rule and other E.P.A. regulations,” said Aric Newhouse, the group’s vice president for government relations. “Stringent, unrealistic regulations such as these will curb the recent economic growth we have seen.”

Manufacturers use a lot of electricity.  The more they have to pay for it the less they can spend elsewhere.  The new utility costs will always be there.  To stay competitive in the market, they will have to offset that permanent increase with cuts in their operating costs.  Translation?  Layoffs.  Or they simply will not hire new people.  Instead they will make capital investments to increase their productivity.  And use fewer people.  This is how they do things when costs go up.  Either that or they will send manufacturing operations out of the country.

What Happens in Vegas isn’t much these Days

Economic activity is driven by disposable income.  That’s the money you have left after paying the things you have to pay for just to subsist.  Food.  Mortgage.  Gasoline.  Property taxes.  Those kind of things.  Once we pay these, we can splurge on economic stimulation with what’s left over.  Dinners out.  Movies.  Vacations.  And gambling (see The Penny Slot Economic Indicator by Douglas French posted 3/16/2011 on Ludwig von Mises Institute).

Those at the Fed and in the financial press are telling us that the economy is turning around. Corporate America is ginning up profits so prosperity on main street can’t be far away…

However, if gaming trends in Nevada are any indication the middle class is hurting. Tourism and gaming peaked in 2007, with middle America making the trek to the gambling city to sit down and play a little blackjack (or 21). Latest figures have blackjack revenue down 31 percent from 2007, the Las Vegas Sun reports.

Last year was the first time baccarat, a game favored by Chinese high-rollers, generated more revenue than blackjack. But the $1.2 billion in baccarat revenue pales next to the $2 billion that penny slot machines generated…

So Las Vegas is limping along dependent on high rollers from China and low rollers playing penny slots. “This is why Vegas got hammered,” Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor says. “It needs the middle market.”

Casinos worked in Las Vegas because people went to Las Vegas to lose their money.  It’s a destination city.  All the other cities who opened casinos to cure their budgetary woes saw no magic.  The middle class just spent their money at the casinos instead of at the movies or the restaurants.  And by taking staycations.  We spent the same amount of money in the community.  We just spent it at different locations.

The recession may be over according to Washington, but it’s not over for the middle class.  Because they haven’t returned to vacationing in Las Vegas.  Why?  They don’t have as much money as they used to have.  And prices are going up.  A double whammy.  They have less to spend and subsistence costs are on the rise.

If Energy Costs Rise Food Costs Rise

In the summer of 2010 the Obama administration was touting their summer of recovery.  Declaring that their stimulus spending had ended the recession.  They were a bit premature.  Unemployment is still close to 9%.  Despite all of their quantitative easing.  They printed a lot of money.  Didn’t help.  Worse, on top of stubborn high unemployment, prices are going up on almost everything (see Wholesale prices up 1.6 pct. on steep rise in food by the Associated Press posted 3/16/2011 on Yahoo! Finance).

Wholesale prices jumped last month by the most in nearly two years due to higher energy costs and the steepest rise in food prices in 36 years. Excluding those volatile categories, inflation was tame…

Food prices soared 3.9 percent last month, the biggest gain since November 1974. Most of that increase was due to a sharp rise in vegetable costs, which increased nearly 50 percent. That was the most in almost a year. Meat and dairy products also rose.

Energy prices rose 3.3 percent last month, led by a 3.7 percent increase in gasoline costs.

Separately, the Commerce Department said home construction plunged to a seasonally adjusted 479,000 homes last month, down 22.5 percent from the previous month. It was lowest level since April 2009, and the second-lowest on records dating back more than a half-century…

Food costs, meanwhile, are rising. Bad weather in the past year has damaged crops in Australia, Russia, and South America. Demand for corn for ethanol use has also contributed to the increase.

Prices rose 1 percent for apparel, the most in 21 years. Costs also increased for cars, jewelry, and consumer plastics.

Some would love to see $4/gallon gasoline again.  It would push people into electric cars and mass transportation.  But there’s a downside.  A big one.  Higher energy costs make everything more expensive.  Even our vegetables.  Because those vegetable don’t appear by magic in the grocery store.  They travel long ways on trucks that burn diesel fuel to get to the grocery store.

Food and energy are tied at the hip.  If energy costs rise food costs rise.  And when you siphon some food off to make low-energy ethanol that no one wants that just increases food costs more.  We should use food for food.  And oil for fuel.  It’s more cost efficient.  And consumers will have more money left over to stimulate the economy with.

The Left Makes a Very Poor Argument Against Nuclear Power

And speaking of energy, nuclear energy is in the news these days in a big way.  But not in a good way.  Japan has some reactors that were hit with a one-two punch of earthquake and tsunami.  The tsunami took out the cooling systems.  So there’s a little trepidation over these plants right now.  And absolute glee as anti-nuclear people exploit this for all it’s worth.  They’re saying, “See!  That’s what could happen in America right now.  And in Europe.  We need to stop all nuclear power.”  I’m paraphrasing, of course.  But you get the gist.  Why, some are even playing loose with facts.  Even lying.  And some are writing top 10 lists why nuclear power is bad and why solar and wind are good (see Too Cheap to Meter: The Top 10 Myths of Nuclear Power by Michael Rose posted 3/15/2011 on The Huffington Post).

The best way to generate new power for the long term is not to build nukes but to invest in large scale solar and wind, coupled with natural gas as a transition in the short term.

The problem has been coordinating the power produced when the wind blows and the sun shines, distributing the power and storage. There are solutions to all of these. “You need to link up the disparate sources to compensate for when the wind is blowing and the sun isn’t shining,”

Coordinating the wind and the sun?  Really?  That should be our energy policy?  And how will that work during a major blackout?  Like the Northeast Blackout of 2003?  Can solar power really run all our air conditioning systems during the dog days of summer?  Our fossil fuel-fired plants can’t always do that.  Can you imagine a hot summer without those high capacity plants?  The inevitable blackouts won’t be rolling.  They’ll simply be scheduled daily during air conditioning weather.

The nuclear industry has asked for loan guarantees from the Federal government because the banks looked at the risk and took a pass. With the loan guarantees in hand the companies can get financing and if they default, or walk away from the projects (which is what happened before) the taxpayers will be stuck with the bill. “It’s the same as if you defaulted on your mortgage and the Federal government had to step in to pay the banks back,” said Hirsch.

We saw above how new regulations are going to cost the coal-fired plant operators.  The new regulations will probably force some plants to shut down.  This is the fear of regulation.  Uncertainty.  If you change the rules midway through the game there’s a good chance you’re going to end up losing in the end.  Power plants are costly.  They are difficult to build because of the regulatory hoops you have to jump through.  It is a very high-risk game.  And nowhere are the risks and regulatory hoops greater than nuclear power.  These plants take even longer to build.  Are far more costly because of the regulatory compliance costs.  And have by far the greatest uncertainty because of the length of time from drawing board to operating on line because of these regulatory hurdles.  This is why banks don’t want to invest.  Because the government can change the rules and prevent a plant from ever going on line, leaving the bank to eat the construction costs.

It’s true that building the reactors does create jobs, but these disappear when the reactor is complete. And there are staff positions for running the reactors, providing maintenance and security but not enough to warrant the high costs and risks…

Ironically some fear that building new nukes will chase jobs away because electric rates will have to dramatically increase to pay them off. “No state ever created a net increase in jobs by raising electric rates to commercial and industrial customers. Such a policy drives jobs out of many businesses to create relatively few permanent jobs at the new reactor,” said Bradford.

Funny.  The same arguments work for other federal stimulus spending.  Those short-term construction jobs are good when they’re trying to pass a stimulus bill.  But it’s not good if it will stimulate nuclear power.  And they say here that increasing the cost of electricity will kill jobs.  Meanwhile, increasing the cost of electricity by adding new regulations for coal-fired plants will increase jobs.  Costs are funny that way.  Sometimes they’re bad.  Sometimes they’re good.  Sometimes they’re rooted in reality.  Other times, in fantasy.

France is pointed to as demonstrable proof that nuclear power can be affordable and safe. While it’s true France gets about 75% of its electricity from nuclear power and that it has avoided a large scale disaster but we don’t know very much about their accident record since its industry is nationalized and run behind a veil of secrecy…

It also adds to the costs of the producing nuclear power which is one reason French electric rates are 20% above U.S. rates despite subsidies, according to Bradford.

So, yes, France has energy independence.  And they haven’t had a nuclear disaster.  But that doesn’t mean anything.  They could.  Just because they didn’t doesn’t mean they can’t have a China syndrome next week.  Or tomorrow.  So we should proceed as if they will.  Despite their safety record.  And the cost?  Interesting.  Because the source they cite paints a little different picture.

The present situation is due to the French government deciding in 1974, just after the first oil shock, to expand rapidly the country’s nuclear power capacity. This decision was taken in the context of France having substantial heavy engineering expertise but few indigenous energy resources. Nuclear energy, with the fuel cost being a relatively small part of the overall cost, made good sense in minimising imports and achieving greater energy security.

As a result of the 1974 decision, France now claims a substantial level of energy independence and almost the lowest cost electricity in Europe. It also has an extremely low level of CO2 emissions per capita from electricity generation, since over 90% of its electricity is nuclear or hydro.

In mid 2010 a regular energy review of France by the International Energy Agency urged the country increasingly to take a strategic role as provider of low-cost, low-carbon base-load power for the whole of Europe rather than to concentrate on the energy independence which had driven policy since 1973.

Energy independence?  Low fuel costs?  Almost the cheapest electricity in Europe?  Extremely low CO2 emissions?  And the International Energy Agency wants them to be the provider of “low-cost, low-carbon base-load power for the whole of Europe…”  I don’t know.  These sound like good things to me.  Talk about being a bit disingenuous.  And by a bit I mean a lot.  Clearly they are cherry-picking some facts to forward an agenda.  Speaking of which, back to the HuffPo.

All civilian nuclear programs create spent fuel that can be reprocessed into weapons grade plutonium. This is what Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan have done.

It doesn’t take much. At first you needed a chunk of plutonium about the size of a softball now it’s down to the size of a golf ball. “If a country has done its engineering, it can take about a week to go to a bomb,” said Gillinsky. “Safeguard inspections are too late.”

And here we come to why we use the energy we use.  Because it’s concentrated.  A little bit of nuclear fuel goes a long way.  Just like our fossil fuels.  That’s why our cars run on gasoline.  Because it’s easy to store and it’s highly concentrated.  With a small tank of fuel you can drive a very long way.  While carrying your whole family.  And a lot of your stuff.  That’s why we don’t drive electric cars.  You can’t do any of this in a battery-electric car.  The battery takes up too much space.  And you just can’t go very far on a charge.

Solar farms and wind farms are not concentrated sources of energy.  The very term we use to describe these generating ‘plants’ tells us this.  You need so many of them that we call them ‘farms’.  Not ‘plants’.  And even with a large footprint their electricity output won’t come close to what the power plants using concentrated-fuels can produce.  A couple of reactors on a small site can power a large city.  It would take a very large plantation of solar panels and windmills to produce the same amount of electricity.  And they will only produce when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.  Our concentrated fuel-fired power plant will be there 24/7, day or night, rain or shine.

Will the Great Recession turn into the Great Depression II?

Never before has our energy policy been in such a mess.  The children have taken control of policy.  They’re promoting fanciful solar panels and windmills no doubt while dreaming of unicorns and sugar plum fairies.  They don’t understand energy.  Or economics. 

Energy costs.  Construction costs.  Fuel costs are recurring.  While construction costs are one-time.  Therefore, the best economic policy would be to minimize fuel costs.  And coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear do just that.  You get huge amounts of energy from small amounts of fuel.  Especially nuclear.

Yes, sunshine and wind are free.  And you can’t minimize fuel costs more than free (except with nuclear that can use some nuclear waste to produce more fuel).  But the infrastructure cost to make solar and wind provide meaningful amounts of energy are staggering.  A nuclear plant can sit on a small footprint out of the way.  While solar and wind farms will take acres of land.  Or water (for offshore wind generation). 

While they play with energy and economic policies, consumer costs rise everywhere.  And will continue to do so.  As a direct consequence of their policies.  Consumers pay more.  And the greatest recession since the Great Depression drags on.  Perhaps turning recession into depression.  Could the Great Depression II be around the corner?  I hope not.  But one can’t rule it out with the current administration.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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Electric Cars and Wind-Generated Power – A Giant leap backward for Mankind

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 31st, 2011

Electric Cars don’t Like the Cold and Snow

There have been some big snow storms hammering the U.S. and the U.K.  Huge snow falls have snarled traffic this past Wednesday in the Washington area.  Not exactly Nome Alaska or Fargo North Dakota.  But it still turned rush hour traffic commutes into parking lots.  Cold parking lots.  Unless you had an internal combustion engine, that is.  And most people did as it turns out.  Lucky for them.  For if they had electric cars, they would have been waiting outside for a tow home.  Or walking home.  Because batteries don’t work well in the cold weather (see Cold truths about electric cars’ cold-weather shortcomings by Charles Lane posted 1/28/2011 on The Washington Post).

It is a basic fact of physical science that batteries run down more quickly in cold weather than they do in warm weather, and the batteries employed by vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt are no exception.

The exact loss of power these cars would suffer is a matter of debate, partly because no one has much real-world experience to draw on. But there would be some loss. Running the heater to stay warm, or the car radio to stay informed, would drain the battery further.

If you want to understand some of the science, here’s some of that science:

“All batteries deliver their power via a chemical reaction inside the battery that releases electrons. When the temperature drops the chemical reactions happen more slowly and the battery cannot produce the same current that it can at room temperature. A change of ten degrees can sap 50% of a battery’s output. In some situations the chemical reactions will happen so slowly and give so little power that the battery will appear to be dead when in fact if it is warmed up it will go right back to normal output.

So think of this the next time your wife is about to start her commute home during the next snow storm.  And then imagine this.  She gets home okay.  Barely.  But you’ve lost your electrical power.  So you can’t plug in your car to recharge.

And many electric-car drivers who did manage to limp home Wednesday would have been out of options the next day: You can’t recharge if you don’t have electricity, and hundreds of thousands of customers were blacked out Thursday from the snow. The Post reports that this will be the case for many of them for days.

An internal combustion engine, though, could start up the next morning.  Because cold weather doesn’t affect them as much as they do batteries.  So if you had to go out for groceries or medicines, your internal combustion engine could get you where you had to go.  Even to a gas station if you needed to fill your tank to give you the range to drive somewhere that had electrical power and open stores.

Wind can be Fickle when it comes to Generating Power

Yeah, but, come on, what are the odds of this happening?  For the most part, batteries are reliable.  Electrical power is reliable.  The chance of losing power after ‘going green’ is so rare that it is statistically insignificant.

All right, let’s forget about driving a car in rush hour traffic in a snowstorm with the heater and your lights on.  Because that rarely ever happens.  Let’s look at wind-generated electrical power.  Like in the U.K.  They’ve added quite a few wind farms.  And they’re providing a rising percentage of their total electrical generation.  And, in a recent cold snap, the wind stopped blowing.  And the windmills stopped turning (see Customers face huge bill for wind farms that don’t work in the cold by Tom McGhie posted 1/9/2011 on the Daily Mail).

In the last quarter ending December 23, wind turbines produced on average 8.6 per cent of our electricity, but the moment the latest bad weather arrived with snow and freezing temperatures, this figure fell to as low as 1.8 per cent.

The slack was immediately taken up by efficient, but dirty, coal-fired power stations and oil-fired plants.

That dirty, filthy, nasty coal and oil no doubt meant the difference between life and death for some.  Why?  Because they’re reliable.  The wind doesn’t have to blow and the sun doesn’t have to shine.  They will always be there.  And this is why they serve as backup to wind generated power.  Because coal and oil are more reliable than wind.

So little energy was generated then that the National Grid, which is responsible for balancing supply and demand of energy in the UK, was forced to ask its biggest users – industry – to ration supplies.

So you may not be able to turn on your lights when you get home.  Cook.  Or run your heat.  But you’ll be saving the planet.  Sure, you may kill yourself in the process, but at least you’ll feel good.  For saving the planet.  By being so green.  As you turn blue.

Only Fossil Fuels can Walk it like they Talk It

There will be some sacrifice going green.  Some could even die (if their electric car battery dies during a blizzard before they get home from Grandma’s).  Or you may have found Grandma shivering in the cold because the wind wasn’t blowing that day.  Muttering to herself about the good old days when we burned coal.  And stayed warm.

When it comes down to it, fossil fuels are life.  Renewable energy sources might give us a brief respite from fossil fuels.  But when anything happens with those renewable energy sources, guess who we go running back to?  That’s right.  Fossil fuels.  And it’s time we stop demonizing the great life-giver of civilization.

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