Our most usable energy is the conversion of sunlight into calories through photosynthesis by plants. This transformation of energy approaches true sustainability (it’s not, but it’s very, very close). Can we also capture and use solar energy through a sustainable technology over the long haul (forever) and without reliance on fossil fuel inputs, that is, without petroleum?
One solar panel drives a 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 is with an electric pump. Once the solar-powered 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?
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. Can you 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 for the future open up, because electricity can be used for lots of swell things besides driving 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 from other pumps. Then what? Do we have to manufacture well pumps locally? Yes.
I am trying to get my head around the idea that there will be no trucks on the freeways delivering the stuff we need. None. No trucks at all. When will that happen? When will the trucks stop rolling for good? Sometime this century.
Trucks and petroleum.
We usually think about trucks blasting down the interstate consuming vast amounts of petroleum fuel. But that’s a tiny part of the story. Think deeper. The truck is also using petrochemicals as engine oil, brake fluid, lubrication and other direct applications. Acknowledge the fossil fuels in the tires, the plastics, the synthetics. How about the steel? 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.
Every damn thing.
Our world floats on an evaporating reservoir of petroleum. When it dries up at last, finally, completely, zilch, kaput, sometime in this century, what the fuck are our kids and grandkids going to do? This question even our most noble leaders can not face. Obama plays Nero, fiddling with Congress while Rome burns.
Only a few, the poets, philosophers 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?
OK. Let me get back to our grandkids. If they are going to have safe water to drink, light to read by (Light bulbs! Shit, forgot about light bulbs.), and the other swell uses of electricity, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture well pumps and solar panels locally.
(Poets and lumbermen. Lumbermen?)