On Friday, June 30th, 2012, A line of thunderstorms marched its way across Ohio. I live in Cincinnati, a beautiful jewel on the Ohio River that sits blissfully in a time warp 20 years behind the rest of civilization. I live on the outskirts of the city proper, but like Chicago, there is a blurry line between incorporated city, unincorporated township suburb. Since I live closer to a suburb and I’m essentially surrounded by unincorporated township, we’re a bit of an afterthought when it comes to city services. So after this bit of wind and rain, we lost power. A surprising happenstance considering how many millions of dollars Duke Energy (that’s right, I’m calling the sons of bitches out) spends on mutilating any tree within 100 feet of a power line (in many cases after the city spent millions of dollars planting the tree in the first place). In 2000-something we had the remnants of a hurricane pass through and we lost power then. After that, Duke made sure they trimmed every tree and checked every line. But yet, here we are again. For 17 hours, I was without power. During one of the hottest June’s on record. Read that again; SEVENTEEN HOURS. I live in the cussing city! I would expect to have long term outages in the country, or even on the outskirts of the suburbs. But not in the city. Frankly it’s unacceptable to lose power this way. I would get it if lightening struck the transformers, or someone blew up the high voltage lines. But that said, we’re now well into the 21st century, so I don’t think I’m well within my rights to say…
I SHOULDN’T LOSE MY POWER EVERY TIME THE EFFING WIND BLOWS!
All right. I feel better now. Time to move on.
I started thinking about this in greater detail after reading this great comic about Nikola Tesla. Since most of my loyal readers are geeks, they’ll know who Tesla was, but for the sake of you who aren’t, I’ll give some basic information. It’s easiest to describe Tesla WAS everything great about Science Fiction personified. You could say that he was so smart that it didn’t matter that his ideas were decades from being feasible; he made them reality anyway. Tesla conceptualized most of the electronic devices we use today, sometimes decades before they became practical or more importantly in America, marketable. His feud with Thomas Edison is the stuff of legend. In 1893, he publicly demonstrated the wireless illumination of phosphorescent lamps of his own design at the World’s Columbian Exposition (better known as the Chicago World’s Fair). Tesla was a vocal proponent of wireless electricity, to the point that he powered his entire lab that way. But no one would buy into it (partly because of Edison) because there was no way to regulate who used it, meaning that you couldn’t charge for it the way you could conventional wired electricity. Yeah.
Tesla deserves his own article. Maybe on Tesla Day.
Anyway, it’s not just how we get out power, though, that bugs me, but how we generate it. I read once (and I wish I could find it again so I could cite it properly) that if we had taken all the money spent on prospecting for natural gas and oil in the last 15 years, and put it into researching fusion, we would have it by now. That’s the real answer isn’t it? A reliable, cheap, limitless power supply that requires fewer plants, has no pollution and can power all of our devices. Back to the Future tells is that we can expect portable fusion-powered devices by 2015. Mr. Fusion was powerful enough (with just some flat beer – with can – and a few banana peels) to supply the 1.21 Gigawatts of electricity needed for time travel. If it can do that, imagine for how long it would power your cell phone or laptop. Imagine how many homes a fully functional fusion reactor could power and how cheap it would be. According to some esitmates, there’s enough Deuterium (Hydrogen 2) in the Earth’s oceans to power the planet for centuries, not to mention the moon and other planets of the solar system. And Tritium (Hydrogen 3) a natural byproduct of our current fission reactors, can also be used for fusion. Why don’t we have this yet? The same reason we don’t have wireless energy – there’s not enough money in it.
If we look at our science fiction, we can see that some of the more dystopic visions of the future have some validity in them, based on our current reliance on fossil fuels. In the universe of Mad Max, vehicles are a sign of power, but keeping them fueled can be difficult, if not impossible. In the less plausible Waterworld, the antagonists work hard to gather all the “black stuff’ up, which implies that they are so far removed from the concept of oil, they don’t know what to call it, but still have managed to find a way to refine it into gasoline, which they use to power their Mad Max themed jet skis. It’s Mad Max meets Sea World, really. In I am Legend, we see the price of Gasoline in New York was over $6 a gallon before the place became a ghost town. Often, in these apocalyptic futures, the gathering and hoarding of gasoline and batteries seems to be a central theme, but it only works because we haven’t mastered fusion. That kicks my ass. We can advance computing technology at an exponential rate, but we can’t figure out how to smash two Deuterium atoms together and create Helium.
And it Science Fiction has taught us anything, it’s that mastering fusion is the key to leaving this planet. You know, if the Earth were a basketball, in the last 40 years we haven’t made it more than a half inch off the surface. And even before that, only 8 times, and those occurred in a 3 year period. If we want Star Trek, people, we need fusion. And while it’s never specifically mentioned, the bright futuristic worlds we all want to live in are most likely powered by fusion, or at least a power system that evolved from it. You want flying cars and highways in the sky? Fusion. You want a Black & Decker Food Hydrator? Fusion. You want fully functional androids that look and act like people? Fusion. Space Travel? Fusion. Let’s face it, we aren’t going to get these things with 89 Octane Unleaded.
Do you all realize that like so many other areas in our lives, the way that we produce power is basically the same as it’s always been? Do you even know HOW we generate electricity? It doesn’t matter what the fuel source is (be it water, coal or nuclear power), the fuel is user to power turbines that generate the power. It’s essentially the exact same process Tesla pioneered in the 1880′s and put into practice first in 1893 at Niagra Falls. A system that while modernized a little, is still in use today. Even with the massive energy capable with fission, we only use nuclear energy to create steam, which in turn powers the turbines. That’s hardly an advancement. It’s just a really dirty way to generate power. The only advantage is that it requires much less fuel to generate the steam than, say, coal, which works on the same principal (they burn the coal to heat water to steam, etc., etc.) Coal isn’t as good for the atmosphere, but I’m thinking that the people of Fukushima, Japan, were wishing they lived near a coal plant when a tsunami caused a loss of power to the cooling system which led to a meltdown. I think the fictional residents of Springfield, and their fish, would agree.
I bet if we had wireless fusion powered electricity, I wouldn’t lose power every time the wind kicked up.