Free Lunch and the Holy Grail

Beautiful things...

Electric motors, beautiful things…

We had a charging glitch with the cars today—my wife plugged the red one in at work, but came back after eight hours only to find that it must not have been plugged in right, and hadn’t charged at all. So, after work I took it to Middlebury to one of the public chargers, and put my bike in the back and rode the seven miles home. A great ride. It had rained earlier in the day, and the weather was cool, and the sun was shining huge sunbeams out from under the retreating clouds, and everything was about as green as it can ever be. Quite bucolic, with the farms and the fields and the Adirondacks in the distance. I wish I had taken a camera.

So I rode along thinking about the energy the Leafs use. They go about 4 or 5 miles per kwh of charge. To put that into perspective, our solar panels make about 3,000 watts in full sun, or 3 kwh’s. So, in an hour the panels make enough power to propel a Leaf, which is slightly heavy at something like 3,500 pounds, somewhere between 12 and 15 miles. As I pondered the effort it was taking to propel 190 pounds (me plus bike) for half that distance, this seemed quite impressive. To move a weight that is approaching two tons for a distance of 15 miles, with the sunlight that hits a quarter of our barn roof in just one hour—that seems like a free lunch.

To make it even more of a free lunch—solar panels don’t really wear out. They very slowly lose efficiency, but can still produce 80% or more of their rated capacity even after 40 years. They just crank out the power, day after day after day.

Electric motors don’t really wear out, either. When looking at the electric motors that power cars—they should last 3 or 4 million miles.

And, while we’re talking about free lunches—the new LED bulbs are expected to last 25 years or more.

So, once these things are produced, they can work, and work, and work, with no cost to the environment. Power and light, for free. And they can be combined in all kinds of ways; think electric high-speed rail.

Now, if these things could themselves be manufactured with renewable power, from materials that were recycled—well, then we’re approaching the Holy Grail. Environmental economists call this “decoupling”—decoupling economic activity from environmental impact. This is an important concept, and understanding it can provide insight into quite a few environmental issues. One in particular—the world economy isn’t even close to being “decoupled” today. Thus, we need to quit consuming so much, at least until we get it figured out. But, the possibility is out there, with today’s technology. We just need to start rearranging things, and to start making some paradigm shifts.

So we don’t have our totally free lunch just yet. But perhaps the saying is wrong, and there is indeed such a thing.

 Image credit: emel82 / 123RF Stock Photo

2 thoughts on “Free Lunch and the Holy Grail

  1. Cindy

    If “we” manufacture things that don’t wear out, what happens to manufacturing? My husband used to repair slate roofs. As you look around Vermont you sometimes see slate roofs that are hooked rather than nailed. He has always said that hooking a roof was a type of job security. The average slate roof is good for 100 years. A hook will rust and let a slate slip and come out. Now in all honesty he does not think roofers hooked roofs for security and income. A hooked roof is often a repaired roof. But I do wonder, if I have all LED lights, and the country has all LED lights and the assumption is made that the lights became available during a certain time period there could come a time when LED demand would drop, long before the cycle of replacement begins.

  2. Taborri Post author

    Oh Cindy, you just latched onto a HUGE topic. Better products are a form of productivity, and as we all get more productive–we could work less. But we don’t, and we can’t, because cultural attitudes and workplace rules (say, for benefits) don’t allow it. So we just work, and work, and work, often only to have more and more “stuff”. And, related to this very post– until we can learn to decouple the economy from the environment, we are going to need to move toward a steady-state economy. But, normal productivity improvements, if not matched by economic growth, equals, drum roll…. unemployment. And the economy can’t grow exponentially on a finite planet. So, we need to either 1) figure out how to actually and fully decouple the economy from the environment, or 2) figure out how to enable people to work less. This is the short version, the topic as a whole is on my “to blog about” list, which, as you can probably glean, seems to get longer rather than shorter, every day.
    -t

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