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A Little Bit Of History: In The Days Of Cholera

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One of our discussions, "How much time to prepare before economic collapse?" led to this string of posts that I consolidated into a single article on the issues raised. These were posted just before the 2008 election. One year later, it is a fascinating time capsule given the events that have taken place in that time.

I was asked to come and give some perspective on the art of the possible and make some suggestions on how to proceed in a time of cholera.

Back in 1981, just after Reagan took office, there was a time when the prime interest rate had just peaked at 24%, oil had just peaked at $30 a barrel, unemployment was climbing toward 10%, and the economy was suffering from horrendous inflation. The Fed had just jacked its rates over 18%. It was not a great time to provide the world with advanced solar power or highly efficient automobiles. In short, nobody was interested.

Next, He who giveth taketh away, and the Congress decided to kill solar energy and conservation, and pulled the tax credits and all the solar R&D that was being funded in the late '70's. What a great time to be a solar expert!

There were about a dozen great ideas that came from the solar folks of that era, including the sleek wind turbines that you see everywhere today, the passive solar home with active solar components that practically made it 100% self-sufficient, the first ocean power plant became operational off the coast of Hawaii, the first large scale solar thermal central receiver at Barstow, the ideas for algae and biomass conversion systems that were in first prototype phases, and fantastic new turbodiesel engines that could run at nearly twice the efficiency as spark ignition engines for autos.

Well, about the only things that survived in the USA were insulation and passive solar green buildings until the price of oil began its recent surge around two years ago. No one can compete with cheap oil except other cheap fossil fuels. Oil fell to $12 a barrel back in '83, and really dropped for a while down to $7 in '84.

I wanted to post this bit of history to paint the ugly picture that led to a 26 year drought in renewable energy and conservation.

We are at a crossroads today. The economy has begun to tank (it's nowhere near as bad as it can be -- that bad is just unimaginable). We are facing imminent and very serious impacts from global warming. It has just begun with the loss of just a few thousand lives. Losses in the millions are just a few years away. We have the most dangerous world today that we have ever faced since World War II, and our enemies now surround us and destroy us on every economic battlefield.

We need a new way of doing business, and must live to a new standard of performance. We need new leadership, and must be brave enough to employ the new technologies that will enable success.

BTW, the period in question came after Nixon's 2nd term, when interest rates shot up through 10% to about 12% just as Carter entered office. Volker at the the Fed kept jacking rates all that period, destroying the economy and ruining any chance at dealing with the construction of new plants, housing, businesses, etc. Carter had nothing to do with that. It was an outgrowth of poor fiscal management by Nixon and Ford's war budgets that left huge structural budget deficits and out of control growth in the money supply, aka inflation.

We can expect the same after the debacle of the Bush years. Hyperinflation should happen almost immediately. Or not. The Fed may just lower the lending rate to zero to the banks.

Let's begin by discussing some possibilities.

The Barstow plant, Solar One, was on a back road behind the coal liquefaction plant they were testing at the time at Southern California Edison. It was the succesful demonstration of solar thermal power towers, the most efficient type of large-scale solar energy conversion.

One of our better inventors, Mike Fallwell, has an idea for a new class of wind machines that might have capital costs about four times less than the sleek wind turbines that you see today, and much broader siting and expansion potential. This is not some violation of the laws of thermodynamics, it is a method by which one might harvest the wind at altitudes of 500 to 1000 feet above ground where the wind velocities are about twice what they are at ground level. the size of the equipment is much smaller and lighter, which makes its energy density much higher. I'll let Mike reveal some of his secrets, but the upshot is that the technology could be mass produced and used in every state with very little land impacts and with something else of great value -- a high capacity factor -- around 0.6. This is 150% higher than ground-based wind systems.

A second very valuable solution is one that kills two birds with one stone. As everyone knows, American automotive history is about to come to an end with the demise of the Big Three. Each of these companies, which together once employed more than 10 million Americans in good, living wage jobs, is now on the verge of bankruptcy. American workers in the Midwest still flee the automakers as they continue downsizing and outsourcing labor. It's a disaster that has been unfolding for decades.

The advanced turbodiesel engines have been mass produced in Europe and Japan in recent years, mostly based on ancient American technology with some new twists. The idea of adding ammonia or urea to the fuel mix eliminates the NOx emissions, and allows much higher compression ratios. This is exactly the same technology developed here 30 years ago that nobody cared about. These engines can be run with diesel fuel, biodiesel, or ammonia, or a mix of the three in virtually any proportion, and achieve fuel to power at the wheel efficiencies in excess of 42%. With very high compression, it can be over 50%.

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Designed first all-solar home for Ryland Homes in 1974. At MITRE, led a group of 35 of the best minds in the world (including Dr. Edward Teller, among others) who performed detailed engineering, scientific, socio-economic, and political analyses (more...)

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