Once Upon an Internet Time - II

Open Source, Closed Source


The Fizzle of Energy


The darkness hit at noon, on March 19th. The temperature in Los Angeles rose to 87F (30C), and the citizenry pushed the “cool” button on their air conditioners. As the demand for electricity rose, the Californian electric grid went into overload, and the power companies declared a “Stage 3 Alert”. Without warning, up to 1.2 million people were cut off from the electric supply in a “rolling blackout” that rippled from Sacramento to San Diego. People were stranded in elevators; computers went dead, networks crashed and all the malaise of lack of electrical power hit. Rolling blackout is a significantly more romantic phrase, for the same irritant that in India is referred to as “load shedding”.


California is one of the world’s premier high tech based economies. Electric power is more basic to the Californian diet, than diet food. The computers, the networks, the movies, the appliances all run off the eclectic juice that comes in over copper wires. Without electricity the alarm clock will not sound in the morning, the coffee will not be ready, the garage door will not open and the water for the shower will be cold. Lunch cannot be cooked, the workplace will be inoperative and the cordless phones will not work. The evening drink will not be chilled, the pizza will not be cooked, the DVD player will not work and, of course, the air conditioner will not cool. Without the air conditioner, its to warm to enjoy the romantic candlelit dinner. In  a phrase, life as it is lived, ceases to exist.


The Dawn of Darkness


For the past six months or so, the experts have been warning of a severe oncoming shortage of electrical power in California. More so, they say, the ripple effects of this shortage would affect the populations, far and away from California, including the states of Oregon, Washington, Arizona, spilling over into parts of the Midwest, rolling away as far as New York. The “California Energy Crisis” as this horrendous situation is called, has been a man-made disaster, that some say has been forming for the last 10 years, but was predicted about a scant 6 months ago. It is a spectacular case of synergy between a comedy of errors and the domino effect.


Volumes have been written about the Californian problem. It is close to impossible, to succinctly answer the question “Why did the crisis happen?”. It is a confluence of many diverse reasons, each in isolation would be inconsequential. For example, for the past decade, no electricity generation plant has been built in California (environmental disincentives). As California’s electric appetite grew, surplus power from neighboring states flew in over the grid. Then, in 1996 a muck up of legislation created a “deregulation” of electric supply. That is, competitive forces were allowed to control the wholesale distribution of electricity. While deregulation is considered a good thing, the way the Californian deregulation worked, when it kicked in, in 2000, it became a overnight disaster. The so-called deregulation is in fact a maze of un-navigatable laws that makes it mandatory for PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric, the major electricity distributor) to sell power to the consumers at a fixed price, while purchasing power from the open market at uncontrolled prices. Soon, in April 2001, PG&E had to file for bankruptcy. The botched deregulation legislation was a recipe for disaster, which is now cooking.


Energetically Speaking


While California wrestles with its uncontrollable fate, the discussion and debate of energy supply, energy usage and energy policies have reached the front burner. Energy is basic to human life. Even the most primitive form of human existence needs energy—heat for cooking. Urban civilizations are extremely dependant on energy. Even in the third world, energy is essential to transportation, manufacturing, food preparation, waste disposal and such. In the advanced countries, the dependence is significantly higher.


Energy is provided in many forms—electricity being the most versatile. Electric power is generated mainly from coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear and hydro. In addition to electricity the other major end-use sources of energy include gasoline (or other forms of oil), natural gas and wood. Energy sources can be loosely classified as non-renewable and renewable. Majority of course is non-renewable (mineral sources, such as oil, coal, natural gas). Renewable energy sources include solar, alcohol, geothermal, hydro (gravitational). Nuclear energy is in the middle—for practical purposes it can be considered renewable, as it is virtually limitless.


Not only is electric power shortages in the US are causing a crisis, oil and natural gas shortages in the US have mysteriously hit dangerous levels, coincidentally, at the same time. The US has not built any oil refineries in the last 12 years, while demands for oil have been rising steadily. Today, this shortsightedness has finally hit home. There is not enough supply to meet the demand. Over the last 20 years or so, the price of gasoline has hovered around $1.20/gallon (Rs. 16/liter), the price includes about $0.40 in taxes. The Europeans who pay about three to four times more for gasoline, complain that the US consumer gets gasoline practically for free. In the past few months, the price has escalated to about $2/gallon with even higher prices practically on the horizon. Again, there is no real shortage, but a shortfall in planning. Too late to fix.


How long will oil last?


Given that we are all dependant on the underground sources of energy to live our lifestyles, how long can this continue? Strangely no one really knows the answer. In the 70’s when the first worldwide energy crisis erupted, prompted by the purposeful decline in oil production by the OPEC nations, this question was studied elaborately. The experts agreed that the worldwide reserves of subterranean oil would last about 30 years, at best, optimistically. If that were correct, we would be out of oil by now. Even as a teenager growing up in India, I was horrified at this prediction.


Then something strange happened. The more we consumed the liquid gold, more supplies showed up. The number of years oil is expected to last has risen ever year, and currently is stands at another 40 years, pessimistically. Actually the number depends on whom you believe. The estimate for the amount of oil in the earth ranges from 1 trillion barrels to 4 trillion barrels. Thus the number of years it will take to consume that is in the range of 40 years to 160 years (rate of consumption is about 25 billion barrels a year, of which the US market drinks 8 billion barrels).


A theory that is gaining momentum is that there is essentially an unlimited supply of oil under the crust of the earth. “Unlimited” is of course a strong word, after all the earth is a finite piece of rock. Suppose the Earth’s oceans contained oil instead of water that would be a lot of oil—it would last about several billion years.  In such a case, we would consider the supply “unlimited” even though it is not. Similarly, this theory goes, there is currently enough oil to last many thousands of years, and more oil is being created from geothermal activity in the earth core, faster than humans can consume it, and hence there is no need to worry.


Even if this theory is false, given the historical success in finding oil deposits and the advances in oil extraction processes (oil deposits that were not considered viable a few decade ago, is viable now, and more will become viable in the future), it is quite apparent that the oil supply will be around for many generations to come.


Are there any alternatives?


At the present, the alternatives do not seem to be very attractive. There are plenty of sources of energy, alternative to fossil fuels. Some are crazy some are questionable and some are gaining acceptance. We could grow corn and ferment it to get alcohol, which burns rather nicely. We can get flammable gasses from rotting garbage. We can tap into the Earth’s heated core to get geothermal energy. We can use the tides to generate hydroelectricity. We can tap into the winds and the storms to drive windmills. Maybe someday someone will really invent the perpetual motion machine (rather unlikely).


The promising sources as of now seems to be solar and nuclear. Both are riddled with problems. Solar energy is great for heating, but generating electricity has been rather expensive. However, experts say that solar electricity can be achieved at about 2-3 times the price of conventional sources. If this is indeed true, then when oil gets scarce solar would be rather viable. The methods of solar generation may even get more efficient (and global warming may give us more sunny days).


Nuclear energy was the darling of the alternative energy worshippers about 25 years ago. The love affair subsided when the reality of the problems of nuclear waste disposal hit home. However, all is not lost. Cleaner nuclear energy seems to be possible. Nuclear fusion can really give us virtually unlimited energy if someone discovers how to contain and control a fusion reaction. For all we know, 100 years from now, someone will work it out. Just a scant 70 years ago nuclear energy was unknown. We cannot quite predict what form of energy will be discovered within the next 100 years.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha.






Partha Dasgupta