power from plug-in hybrids and comatose humans
Sunday, April 29 2007
setting: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
I was driving to the greater Woodstock area for a meeting late this morning and was listening to the local public radio station, WAMC. Alan Chartok, WAMC's grand pooh-bah, was interviewing a guest about energy issues and this guest was making very little sense. Whoever this person was, he spouted a number of lesser nonsensical claims leading to a really monstrously stupid one, which was that if 80% of the cars on the road were plug-in hybrids, then they could be tapped as a source of energy by the power grid just like solar panels, making it possible to avoid building future power plants. This claim is of the same sort of ridiculousness as the main conceit of the Matrix, that a world taken over by robots would maintain millions of unconscious humans in elaborate architectural hives just for the energy they somehow produce. The suggestion that hybrids could help with providing power for the grid, as well as the use of "humans as batteries" concept in the Matrix, must reflect an underlying strata of magical thinking in the minds of most people when it comes to issues of energy. Evidently people think that energy can be produced spontaneously and doesn't require a source. Where is the energy in a comatose human coming from? It must be coming from the food you're pumping into him. So why not just use the food as an energy source and skip the inherently-wasteful step of passing it through a human? The same is true of a hybrid car. Where is the energy stored in its battery coming from? Ultimately it comes from the gasoline pumped into its gas tank. Sure, a hybrid is less wasteful than a regular car in that it can recoup some of its braking energy. But once you've parked a car and turned off its gasoline engine, it's not much of an energy source. You could perhaps drain some electricity from its batteries, but you'd have to do that from a lot of cars and most cars with energy for the taking are on the road at times of peak electrical grid demands.
I have to give Alan Chartok credit. This idea puzzled him and he asked a number of good questions of his guest, all of which were answered with vague reference to things like regenerative braking.
At the end of the interview I finally found out who the guest was. It was John Hall, the brand new Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York's 19th District (just north of New York City's outer suburbs). Starting as a long-shot candidate back in early 2006, this one-time pop musician appeared as a prospective district representative to be better known on The Colbert Report's segment, "Better Know a District," and then went on to ride the Democratic wave to victory, defeating the Republican incumbent Sue Kelley. His victory was one of many delights that came this past November. While it's great that John Hall is interested in energy issues and is working hard to bring the plug-in hybrid to reality, it's disappointing to hear him spouting such obvious nonsense, particularly given the educational role he could be providing to the many people who don't understand the basic science underlying our future energy crisis. I suppose, though, that it's never in the interests of politicians to be anything but pollyannas; that is the science underlying politics. Aspiring politicians must find the optimism compatible both with their core beliefs and with winning elections.
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