(Yesterday, I was out in the country on a home inspection. The water well was being tested for yield and quality. I love wells, and write about them often, Mother Nature providing her abundance for our sustenance, that sort of thing. My thoughts turned to techniques for powering the well pump, way, way down at the bottom of that hole in the ground. I remembered this article I wrote a few years ago on another blog, and decided to update it.)
Our most available energy is the conversion of sunlight into calories through photosynthesis by plants. This transformation of energy approaches true sustainability.
It’s not absolute sustainability (remember entropy?), but it’s very, very close.
Here’s a question for you. Can we find a way to capture solar energy through a sustainable technology over the long haul (almost-forever) and without reliance on fossil fuel, that is, without petroleum?
Look at this compact little energy conversion:
One solar panel powers an electric pump that brings drinking water up from a deep well. Take it from one who knows about these things, we are having to drill deeper and deeper wells, and the only way to get the water up from a deep well is with an electric pump. Once the solar-powered pumping system is working, the water is practically free and does not rely on petrochemicals. It leaves no carbon footprint. It is about as safe, environmentally friendly, and sustainable as you can make a system for retrieving deep water.
Until the solar panels wear out.
A good panel may last twenty or twenty-five years, maybe longer, though they begin to degrade as soon as they’re installed. Doesn’t everything?
Every human generation, then, is going to have to replace its solar panels.
Where do the panels come from, most of them, right now?
How do we get solar panels from a factory in China to our home or farm? On a boat or a plane or a truck or some combination, all powered by petroleum, dragging along a huge carbon contrail.
If we are going to have solar panels in a post-petroleum world, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture them locally. Imagine a world in which the “panel maker” is as important to the community as the blacksmith or the doctor?
If solar panel fabrication can be localized, other possibilities open up, because electricity can be used for lots of swell things besides powering well pumps.
Well pumps wear out even faster than solar panels. With luck and decent water (not too much iron and other minerals), we might get twenty years out of a pump, though most of them are rated for ten to twelve years. For a generation or two we might be able to repair pumps with parts that we salvage from other pumps.
Then what? Do we have to manufacture well pumps locally?
I am trying to get my head around the idea that a time will come when there will be no trucks on the freeways delivering the stuff we need, like well pumps. No trucks at all. When will that happen? When will the trucks stop rolling for good?
When they run out of gas.
When will that happen?
Sometime this century.
We can think about trucks blasting down the interstate consuming vast amounts of fossil fuel. But that’s just a tiny part of the story. The truck is also using petrochemicals as engine oil, brake fluid, lubrication and other direct applications. Then think about the fossil fuels used in the manufacture and materials for the tires, the plastics, the synthetics.
How about the steel? With what kind of energy is the steel mined, transported, forged, transported again, processed, fabricated, transported again, assembled, and transported again?
More fossil fuels. It ain’t just the gas in the tank. It’s everything.
Our world floats on an evaporating reservoir of petroleum. When it dries up at last, finally, completely, zilch, kaput, sometime in this century, what are our kids and grand kids going to do? This is a question even our most noble leaders can not face. The President (of whatever political party) plays Nero, fiddling with Congress while Rome burns.
If our grand kids are going to have safe water to drink, light to read by, and the other swell uses of electricity, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture well pumps and solar panels locally.
And for the long haul.
Only a few poets and lumbermen, have the guts to look down the line, way, way down the line, five hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years, and make plans. Ten thousand years! Can we still be here in ten thousand years?
Poets and lumbermen.
The best long, long range planning I know about here in the foothills is conducted by the timber industry. Sierra Pacific projects it’s timber harvest out hundreds of years into the future. How many of our “leaders” look beyond their next election?
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