Energy Monsters

“People do not go to hell after death. The designers and builders of hell are human beings. The designs and buildings are almost completed. It is becoming difficult to add more hell.”
– Tamo-san

If I were to make the claim, prior to the American Civil War, that to wish for an end to slavery in America, was monstrous, because its downfall would entail the suffering of millions of white southerners, who would become jobless and hungry, some may have been so inclined to call me a monster. My point here is not to compare the degree of suffering that may or may not happen to us soon, to the suffering that may or may not have happened in the Confederate states, had they ended slavery, but to illuminate the actual reality, rather than the perceived reality most of us know. Some believe, that it is monstrous to wish an end to civilisation.  I have highlighted some of the current atrocities being committed today, in previous posts, here, and here. The next few posts will examine even more of the monstrous activities our civilisation is engaged in. This is an effort to give credence to the notion that our culture is doomed, and the sooner it ends, the better. And furthermore, to dispel the illusion that this way of reasoning is “monstrous”.

mon·strous adj

  1. Shockingly hideous or frightful.
  2. Exceptionally large; enormous: a monstrous tidal wave.
  3. Deviating greatly from the norm in appearance or structure; abnormal.
  4. Of or resembling a fabulous monster.

Giant Earth Movers
Often we hear about how the marvels of technology will save us from the coming decline of world energy supplies. I would challenge anyone to tell me how one could possibly build something more “monstrous” than the aberration shown above. It is the largest earth mover in the world, built by the Krupps corporation, shown here crossing an interstate in Germany. You can see the power point presentation here. The monster cost 100 million to build, and weighs 45,500 tons, watch the power point for more info on that. This was one of the most terrifying things I have seen in a long time. These are the depths we must now go to, in order to extract coal from open-pit coal mines. Coal is mostly used to generate electricity, and to produce 1 joule of electricity, you need to extract 3 joules of energy from coal. With peak oil now clearly a reality, large utility companies like Peabody, and Dominion, are frantically building new coal-fired power plants nationwide. This is the “solution” to peak oil for corporate America. Co-op Americareports:

Major power companies and the current White House administration are telling Americans that coal is the future of affordable energy. But increased greenhouse gas emissions, dangerous coal mining, mercury pollution, increased asthma and human health problems, and dramatic groundwater waste are costs that no one can afford. Tell the CEOs of power companies Peabody and Dominion and their Board members to heed the call of shareholders and their power customers and halt climate change, stop building new coal plants, and shift the billions of dollars they are spending on coal into green energy like solar and wind as well as energy efficiency.

While this type action is a good start, it ignores or fails to understand the enormity of the problem. We don’t need to simply “tell” the CEO’s about it. We are the ones using the electricity, if we don’t want coal-fired power, than we need to “Powerdown”. Richard Duncan explains in his update to the “Olduvai Theory” about the immense costs associated with the continued production and maintenance of the electricity grid. I wrote recently at

I think a common misunderstanding about the feasibility of alternatives, is that most proponents don’t really see the total cost of implementation, everything from the direct costs, to the electricity grid. Without electricity, we cannot produce anything, and the investment required to maintain what we have today, is staggering, consider this, from Richard Duncan’s update to the “Olduvai Theory”:

Permanent Blackouts are Coming. The third catch, according to the Olduvai Theory, is that sooner or later the power grids will go down and never come back up. The reasons are many, The International Energy Agency (IEA, 2004) estimates that the cumulative worldwide energy investment funds required from 2003 to 2030 would be about $15.32 trillion (T, US 2000 $) allocated as follows:

  • 1. Coal: $0.29T )1.9% of the total),
  • Oil: $2.69T (17.6%)
  • Gas: $2.69T (17.6%)
  • Electricity: $9.66T (63.1%).

Thus the IEA projects that the worldwide investment funds essential for electricity will be 3.7 times the amount needed for oil alone, and much greater than all of that required for oil, gas, and coal combined. The OT says that the already debt-ridden nations, cities, and corporations will not be able to raise the $15.32 trillion in investment funds required by 2030 for world energy. (Not to mention the vastly greater investment funds required for agriculture, roads, streets, schools, railroads, water resources, sewer systems, and so forth.)

This is why, despite the optimism of some energy experts, the electricity grid will be more and more difficult to maintain, as oil prices climb, and the effects of peak oil set in. The amount of money needed to continue to build giant earth movers is going to dry up, because no company in the world is going to invest in electricity generation when their is no return on investment, we are already in that position now. This is evidenced by the massive number of mergers among power companies, like Constellation Energy of Baltimore recently purchasing FPL of Florida. This illustrates the monstrous nature of our electricity production, and the inevitability of its demise. It should also be duly noted that in medieval times, coal was considered an extremely poor source of energy, because it turned the skies black. Europeans only came back to coal after they exhausted the wood supply in surrounding forests. So much for the wonders of technological progress.

Alberta Tar Sands

The tar sands in Alberta are often coveted as the “solution” to peak oil. Without devolving into an “alternatives” discussion, here is a photo essay from “Technology Review”.

Where the oil sands lie close to the surface, mostly near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta, they can be mined. In the effort to get at these sands, areas have been drained of wetlands and stripped of boreal forests, which play an important role in climate regulation and carbon storage. Their destruction contributes to the greenhouse effect.

Equipment used by oil-sand miners includes tractors with top-mounted radiators and cooling fans to protect their engines from oil particles and sludge, thousand-metric-ton shovels, and the Caterpillar 797. This colossal dump truck weighs more than 500 metric tons when empty. When its tires wear out after about a year, they are reused as cattle feeders. Producing crude oil from the Alberta sands is an energy-­intensive process. Giant digging and transportation machines use commensurately large amounts of fuel. Refining and welling technologies consume roughly 300 cubic meters of natural gas per barrel of recovered oil. Environmental watchdogs estimate that, as a result, producing a barrel of oil from the Alberta sands releases two to three times the volume of greenhouse gases that traditional oil production would. By 2015, production from the oil sands is projected to release 94 megatons of greenhouse gases. Oil sand retrieved from surface mining is crushed and then moved to a processing plant via “hydrotransport.” As the sand, mixed with water, tumbles through transport pipes, the clumps of bitumen, sand, and water begin to loosen.

The sand-and-water slurry is dumped into tanks with hot water, where it separates into three layers: sand, bitumen froth (impure bitumen), and a middle layer that is further treated to extract bitumen. Bitumen froth is also treated to remove impurities.

Oil companies create ponds in which to dump millions of cubic meters of the sandy, toxic by-product of oil-sand processing. These “tailings ponds” are characterized by salt and acids. Here, a worker installs a scarecrow to keep birds away.

I would qualify this, along with the giant earth mover, as “Beyond Monstrous“.