What’s the difference between stone age energy, and the new energy paradigm?

The starting point of LongTailPipe is cars and the transportation system, looking at solutions to the transportation system’s negative environmental impact.  We look at the full spectrum of impacts and solutions, even though we seem to focus on electric vehicles.  That’s why the topic is sometimes fracking, and we’ll cover other energy technologies in the future.  The fossil fuel companies (Exxon, BP, etc) want to rebrand themselves as “Energy” companies, probably to create some distance in our minds from their main product – dirty fossil fuels.  Recently I wrote about the shift from stone age technologies (gasoline, etc) to clean energy technologies,  and yesterday the topic was the Tesla gigafactory, and how it’s planned to be a Net Zero Energy factory thanks to plentiful on-site solar and wind power.

This morning I’m thinking – what is energy, anyway?

The fossil fuel companies say they sell energy, but they’re selling dirty fossil fuels.  Aren’t they obfuscating the meaning of this word, energy?

This first picture – a natural gas burner like you’d see on a stovetop – that’s what the fossil fuel companies want us to think of as Energy.  It’s heat, and a small bit of light.  A natural gas flame like this could, if used to heat a steam or stirling engine, produce motion.  Hence, there is Energy here but it’s produced by burning a fossil fuel, and we know this causes many negative side effects.

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Going by my earlier article, this natural gas flame is the stone age mentality.

This second picture shows the typical electrical outlet used in the U.S.  This is Energy in a purer form, electrons moving through a wire.  It can be harnessed to produce a wide variety of results like running a computer, light bulbs, stoves, refrigerators, and on and on and on.  There’s no direct negative side effects unless you do something stupid like touch the wires the wrong way and electrocute yourself.  However, there are negative side effects from most of the ways electricity is generated because of the fossil fuels that are burned.

Going by my earlier article, electricity is the new energy paradigm.  The flaw holding us back from fully adopting the new energy paradigm is that most electricity comes from burning fossil fuels.

Still – we haven’t answered the question, what is Energy.  We have talked about the old and new energy paradigms, and described Energy as “light, heat or motion”.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has a page, meant for kids, that explains Energy.  That’s a good place to start.  The Wikipedia has a very detailed page on Energy if you want to go deeper.

The EIA page says “Energy makes change possible” and that scientists define energy as “the ability to do work.”  Energy is the basis of civilization because “we have learned how to change energy from one form to another and then use it to do work for us.”

Forms of Energy are divided into two camps:  Potential Energy, and Kinetic Energy.

Potential Energy is the stored energy like in a battery pack, or a tightly wound spring.  Kinetic Energy is action or motion taking place, such as when you step on the accelerator pedal in the car and the car moves.

The various forms of Kinetic Energy give us a different way to describe the stone age energy paradigm, versus the new energy paradigm.

Thermal Energy is what we get by burning things.  Mankind has invented all kinds of gizmos to take heat (Thermal Energy) and turn that into motion or light.  The Internal Combustion Engine in most cars does so, burning gasoline (Thermal Energy) in a cylinder that causes the cylinder head to move, causing a crank shaft to turn, causing wheels to turn, providing motion.

In an electric car, we instead start with Electrical Energy, that’s sent through some wires into an electrical motor that uses Electromagnetic Energy to cause the motor to spin, causing wheels to turn, providing motion.

The difference is Thermal Energy versus Electrical Energy.

There’s also a difference in the energy storage medium (the Potential Energy).  In a gasoline car the potential energy is stored in gasoline, while in an electric car the potential energy is stored chemically in a lithium-ion battery.  Oh, and in a fuel cell car the energy is stored chemically as hydrogen.

Stone age energy paradigm:  Potential energy stored in fossil fuels, and a big dependence on Thermal energy machines.  The fossil fuels are ancient energy, stored by the planet from the tissues of dead plants and animals.

New energy paradigm:  Potential energy stored in chemical bonds, big dependence on electrical and electromagnetic energy machines.  We strive to capture energy from the environment around us, rather than relying on ancient energy stored by the planet in fossil hydrocarbon deposits.

The Tesla Gigafactory will, if it pans out as described, be a big-scale example of the new energy paradigm.  It will be a large facility, 10 million square feet and 6,500 employees, operating solely off energy captured from the wind and sunshine.

This is the idealized desired pattern of the new energy paradigm.  Energy captured from our environment, wind, solar, waves, geothermal, harnessed to produce electricity, that can be sent through wires, stored in various ways, and used to run electrically powered machines.  No fossil fuels anywhere, no smoke stacks, nothing burned.  The whole system would be a purer form of energy than we currently use.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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  1. Pingback: Obama reigns in power plant emissions as coal industry teeters into bankruptcy | The Long Tail Pipe

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