Monday, June 09, 2008

Mirrors on the Titanic

NPR recently ran a story (definitely worth a listen) about the practice of Energy Recycling. There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about energy.  High oil prices, carbon output, sustainability, etc. but this one was particularly interesting.  Recycling is good.  Everyone loves recycling.  It reduces the guilt you feel about using plastic bottles and tin cans and paper products.  And its even not that bad for the planet. 
Well energy recycling is even better.  The general idea is to take the heat generated at, for example, a steel foundry and use it to turn steam turbines to produce electricity.  This is heat that would otherwise have just dissipated out of a smokestack or something.  The electricity can be used to run the foundry itself or fed back into the grid.  This idea rocks.  And given that 27 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions was from the production of heat as a byproduct of doing something useful, its nice to be able to use that heat again. This could even be done to recapture the heat from coal fired power plants to make even more electricity from the heat of burning the coal in the first place! HOW COOL IS THAT!
So that's the general idea.  The story goes into more detail about the amount of energy and how it works but the main idea was that if we did this all over the place we could eliminate the need for something like 400 coal fired power plants. 
I'm in the car listening to this with my heart singing with joy for the brilliant innovation of the human race and how we're all going to get through this thing because people can do anything and we are clever beyond the dreams of Avarice.

Then I almost hit a bridge embankment. From the NPR story(emphasis mine):

So why isn't it done more often here(in the US)?

"The real challenge is that it's typically illegal," says Casten, "and you've got to find a way around the laws."

Casten says state and federal laws protect monopoly utilities, often preventing energy recyclers from selling excess power back to the grid or from running power lines across a street. Even the Clean Air Act prevents utilities themselves from recycling waste heat at older coal-fired power plants, because any modification subjects them to newer regulations.

Are you #$%!ing kidding me!?

So let me see if I got this right.  We are dicking around with solar panels, and pinwheels and hybrid cars that inexplicably get worse gas mileage than my conventional '92 Honda Civic, and taking corn that used to feed people and turning it into fuel, and talking about conservation this and recycle that and turn the lights off when you aren't using them and change this bulb to that bulb and take short showers and drive with your windows shut for air resistance and hooking up treadmills at gyms to generate power while you exercise and don't forget to suspend your computer before you leave so it won't use electricity over night and don't use your brakes because it will waste gas....

and we don't want to recapture and use the heat that creates more than a quarter of the country's greenhouse gases to protect utility monopolies!!

I am insufficiently eloquent to put into words how crazy this made me.  The closest I heard was my brother's response when I told him about this. I paraphrase because I have a memory like a wet sponge:

"That is like being on the Titanic while its sinking and going topside to install a giant array of mirrors to redirect and focus the sun's rays to heat up the water filling the ship so that it evaporates faster instead of plugging the giant freaking hole in the bottom of the boat."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

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