'Daddy, where does electricity come from?'
"Just look out the window. See those wires? That's where electricity comes from."
"But how does it get into the wires?"
"At the other end of the wires, there's sort of a factory that has machines that make electricity. The machines are driven by steam turbines. The steam is made by burning natural gas or coal and sometimes the heat from small atomic bombs."
"Oh! I get it."
Ironically, as carbon-based energy is being hysterically blamed for the impending destruction of the Earth, schemes to put much more demand on the electrical grid abound. Meanwhile, last December, the CEO of Toyota Motors publicly claimed that there is not nearly enough electrical generation capacity available to significantly increase the number of all-electric automobiles:
"Progressive" communities such as Berkeley, CA have gone so far as to outlaw all new natural gas connections. Fortunately for the world, there's not a lot of new construction going on in Berkeley (go figure). But imagine the use of electricity to cook, heat water, and maintain comfort in the winter...rather than the much more efficient natural gas. Electricity is mostly made from natural gas, and it tends to lose some of its oomph as it travels through wires...whereas gas loses nothing as it travels through its pipe.
What about wind and solar? The chart below breaks down all sources of electricity and their percentage of the whole:
Bottom line: Solar is insignificant, whereas wind produces slightly more juice than hydro.
One particular problem with electricity is storage. Batteries work, but not with great efficiency. They also wear out, and the newfangled lithium batteries are largely a toxic nightmare. "Hydroelectric pumped storage" describes utilities that pump water uphill to a storage pond during "off-peak" periods...and then release the pumped water back downhill to run a turbine during the next peak demand period. Implied in all of this is that electrical demand varies throughout the day...with slack demand occurring during the wee small hours of the night and peak demand during the middle of the business day. This is particularly significant in warm climates while the A.C. is humming. To further deal with this problem, utilities have set up "peakers"...small generating stations close to areas of high electrical consumption. These are typically natural gas turbines similar to jet engines that automatically fire up when the grid is challenged.
Electricity first became an important commodity with the invention of the telegraph. Telecommunication is particularly valuable. Beyond his code, which anybody could've figured out, Morse invented the relay. A dot-and-dash signal traveling through a wire lost strength over distance. The relay is essentially a robot that automatically re-transmits the signal, thus allowing indefinite distances to be covered effectively as long as a source for new electricity was present at each relay station. Originally, since mechanical generation of electricity was not ready for commercial use, chemical cells were the source. The value of this development goes back to the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, in which the British forces suffered one of their greatest defeats. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the U.S.-British War of 1812, had already been signed...but the news had yet to travel by ship across the Atlantic for the troops on the ground to find out.
Periodic droughts affecting heavily populated coastal areas present a particularly significant potential for increased demand on the electrical grid: energy to be used for desalination. The desalination plant in Carlsbad, CA is situated right next to an electrical generating facility. The process involves reverse osmosis, which consumes lots of electricity. Ironically, the plant was built by an Israeli company — and electricity is actually cheaper in Israel than in resource-rich California. Meanwhile, most automobiles run on energy-dense gasoline, and the propagation of electric vehicles would put considerable stress on the grid just to perform a function that is already being effectively handled by other means.
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