Conservationists Cannot Escape the Laws of Energy

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By Warren Brown
Sunday, August 19, 2007

NOVI, Mich.

I came here to discuss energy conservation with several engineers from General Motors. We wound up talking about religion.

That is not as far-fetched as it seems. It has everything to do with the laws of thermodynamics -- that energy can be changed from one form to another but cannot be created or destroyed; and that in all energy exchanges, absent the addition or subtraction of energy from a given system, the potential energy of the changed state will always be less than that of the initial state.

Engineers call the changed state entropy, a condition lacking heat or motion. Most of us refer to that condition as death, the end of what we commonly construe to be useful physical life.

It was in that context, over a luncheon of killed and cooked fish we were eating to fuel our bodies, that we ventured into a conversation about Christian religious beliefs and how, if we really accepted them as much as many of us claim we do, we would have a more realistic understanding of energy conservation and, thus, more realistic expectations of current conservation efforts.

To wit: We are managing the inevitable transformation of all physical life to something else, the change of energy from one form to another, the gradual movement toward entropy until what was is renewed or reenergized and turned into something else.

In spiritual terms, we refer to that exchange as the death of the physical body leading to the eternal life of the soul. For purposes of this discussion, it matters not that you personally accept that belief. What matters is that it is a prevalent notion, the basis of which is this: There is no free lunch. The fish we ate once lived. They died to feed our lives. For those of us who believe in eternal spiritual life, there is the concomitant belief that the only way we'll get there is by leaving this one.

In short, when it comes to energy use and conservation, trade-offs are inescapable.

Consider America's affection for gasoline-electric hybrid cars. Many in the media and in politics have hailed the devices as the answer to energy conservation and environmental stewardship in the transportation sector. In truth, they represent energy consumption and environmental problems in a different guise.

For example, current nickel-metal hydride battery gas-electric cars supposedly have a useful battery life of eight years. In the prime of their useful lives, they save gasoline in urban traffic where their electric power systems carry most of the workload. But when their batteries die, when they become entropic, the cars are practically useless until the dead batteries can be replaced. And those dead batteries have to be buried somewhere.

In terms of what engineers call "well-to-wheel energy costs," gas-electrics actually are more energy consumptive and environmentally stressful than the traditional gasoline-powered cars and trucks they are supposed to replace. It takes lots of energy to design, develop, manufacture, transport and install nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion batteries. And, again, once their energy is used, once those batteries have become entropic, something has to be done with them.

It does not matter what alternative fuel or combination of alternative fuels and propulsion systems you consider. Every single one of them has some kind of trade-off. You want ethanol from sugar cane and corn to power cars? Okay. That will help reduce our dependence on oil -- energy derived from the remains of animals that died ages ago. But it takes energy to produce ethanol. And producing it from feedstock means that some stock somewhere will not be fed as well or that feeding it likely will be more expensive.

You want transportation energy from compressed natural gas, propane, plug-in electrics or hydrogen? The same principle of trade-offs will apply. Something once alive, such as a gasoline infrastructure, will give way to or otherwise be diminished by transformation into the new. People whose livelihoods and values were tied to the old will be unhappy. They will fight to hold onto what was. And the new will not come free of charge.

Aware of all of this, some environmental activists have embraced the notion of abandoning cars and trucks, or of at least reducing our enormous reliance on them. They romanticize a return to "walkable communities," a time when we grew our produce on our own land and transported it to local shops. To hear them talk, it was a time when we were all happy, when no one worried about oil.

But there were trade-offs then, too. The "cheap energy" used to sustain that bucolic past often came from slaves, indentured servants or poorly paid labor. It relied on overworked horses and other animals that, once their energy was expended, died unheralded.

Does this mean we should do nothing about energy conservation? Of course, it doesn't. Movement is a requirement of life. Movement requires energy. No movement, no life. No energy, no movement. The world as we know it stops and becomes something else.

Energy conservation, in that light, is nothing more than an attempt to delay and manage the inevitable. It requires intelligence. It demands compromise. You can even argue that, to do it properly and fairly, it requires a certain amount of love. Essentially, it is an act of faith in something better.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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