We may not be able to do much about the weather but we can learn from it. Especially regarding energy.
The storms and cold of the past few weeks fingered the weaknesses in the new and exotic sources most attractive to persons concerned about the environment. They also illustrated a flaw in the supposed ace in the hole - coal - and the need to push ahead with nuclear power.
Ten days ago I was in Santa Clara, Calif., one of the leading demonstration sites for solar energy. The progressive municipal government there has pioneered in building a new recreation center that is both heated and air-conditioned by solar energy.
When I visited the city, however, the sun hadn't shone for three weeks. The recreation center had been obliged to switch off its solar plant and go on to a conventional backup power source. The conventional system, because it was designed to merge with solar energy, was less efficient than a normal boiler. So, in fact, Santa Clara was using more energy than it would have without the solar installation.
The day before that I was up at the Geysers, a geothermal source of power north of San Francisco. Geothermal energy comes from tapping the steam, or hot water, in igneous rock that has been thrust up toward the surface of the earth in certain areas, usually near earthquakes and volcanos. The steam or hot water is used to drive turbines, which in turn generate electricity.
Geothermal, accordingly, is an almost ideal source, and the Geysers has been developed by the Union Oil Co. to the point where it supplies a considerable fraction of the power delivered by the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to the San Francisco Bay area.
But the weather was cold when I visited the Geysers. Steam emerging from scores of safety valves turned into vapor as soon as it hit the cold air. Thus, apart from the noxious sulphurous smell, there were white plumes everywhere. One of the most beautiful valleys in the world looked like the opening scene from "MacBeth."
The trouble with coal has been evident all over the Middle West. In Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, parts of Pennsylvania and Virginia, coal piles were soaked by rain. Then the mercury dropped and they froze solid.
In many major industrial towns - notably Cleveland and Pittsburgh - the local utilities were unable to break out coal from the frozen piles. Sometimes when the coal was dug out, it turned out to be too watery for efficient use. Factories, schools and many other buildings, as a result, were shut down, and in many areas are still operating below par.
At one point the American Electric Power Co., which services the West and is heavily dependent upon coal, had lost over a third of its generating power. It scraped by only by heavy borrowing from other systems.
though it is hard to tell where the extra power came from, not a little of it was nuclear. Commonwealth Edison of Illinois, which is probably the national leader in nuclear power, was a heavy contributor. So was New England Utilities in Hartford, which is also out front in the nuclear area.
For nuclear power, of course, is immune to the stormy weather. It is also, being a relatively small user of manpower, not subject to the chaotic labor conditions that have closed down the coal mines. During the past seven weeks, in fact, nuclear plants around the country have been operating about 10 per cent above their normal levels.
One winter, to be sure, does not energy policy make. Solar facilities are improving rapidly, and in time they can probably come onstream. Geothermal energy has an obvious future. The noisome smell, as well as the steam, can eventually be mastered.
More work is probably being done in coal than in any other energy source. Slurry pipelines and processes for coal liquefaction and coal gasefication will undoubtedly outmode the old coal piles. But this, too, will happen in years to come.
In the meantime, along with all the other possible sources, this country ought to be developing its nuclear power. That development - it should be noted in view of the accident to the Soviet observation satellite over Canada - would of course, entail further guarantees of safety.