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Book Review: Who Turned Out the Lights by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

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In a nutshell, Who Turned Out the Lights involves one major theme. We need to find ways to balance the earth’s natural resources with the growing demand for energy. Since our fragile atmosphere, too, is a natural resource, our balancing act must not destroy it.

 

Any educated person by now must believe science’s forewarning that global warming can eventually destroy life on our planet.  Yet all of us are aware of the bothersome inconveniences caused by shortages. Remember rationed gasoline? Remember long lines of cars waiting for high priced fuel at gas stations? So our seesaw act between saving earth’s atmosphere and/or demanding more fuel to use carelessly is a two edged sword.

 

If 70% of all energy in the United Stated is used for either transportation or electricity, from whence doth it come? Much of it comes from fossil fuels. Millions of years ago, vast numbers of plants and animals around the earth died when our planet’s crust covered them with increasingly thick layers of dirt and rock-like substances. The downward pressure and heat dramatically altered this buried goo, both physically and chemically. The result: fossil fuels — petroleum, coal, natural gas.

 

Bringing these resources to the earth’s surface to provide the world’s energy demands can continue but only until they are gone. And there’s the rub. Scientists are warning consumers that the deeply hidden pockets of these fuels are disappearing. They are irreplaceable because the pressurized fossilization process has stopped. Are we then doomed?

Who Turned Out the Lights would say no. There are other ways of producing energy. All of us are aware of hydro-electric power from dammed up water in our rivers. The United States has an abundance of rivers compared to Saudi Arabia and other arid countries. But damming the rivers causes other environmental shocks. It disturbs aquatic life both in the river and all along the river’s shores.

Nuclear power would seem to give mankind the biggest return on the amount of fuel spent. the economies of some countries, France for example, depend on it. About 19% of U.S. energy comes from nuclear power, but it can be dangerous. The Chernobyl explosion in Russia and resultant radioactive contamination required the displacement of 336,000 people from their homes in large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Although that accident happened in 1986, today the contaminated areas are now thought to be safely inhabitable. In addition, uranium is not renewable, and its radioactive waste is not disposable — at least not easily. In the United States, much of it has been buried deep within Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Here it will sit for 10,000 or even 1,000,000 years, depending on its potency. 

Popular magazines show homes covered with solar cells. Solar energy is in its infancy. It takes vast areas of solar panes to produce useable amounts of electricity. Who Turned Out the Lights claims that by 2015, this renewable source of energy will be “economically competitive.” At present, it supplies 1% of electrical energy.

On drives east through Pennsylvania and south through West Virginia, I’ve seen lines and lines of wind turbines. They, too, make use of renewable wind power and there are plenty of places where air currents are relatively constant particularly where large bodies of water and land meet. To make these wind turbine giants feasible, our nation needs a myriad more and a grid network to get the energy they produce off high mountains and down into cities and towns. We also need ways of storing such energy for later use at peak times. 

What would be exciting is the conversion of plants into fuels or even garbage which we have plenty of. Who Turned Out the Lights claims that ethanol can be converted to fuel, and even if it is simply burned, since plants give off oxygen when growing, it is a wash between the amount of oxygen they give off growing and the carbon dioxide they release when burned.

Although the authors in this book state that geothermal processes provide less than 1% of our earth’s energy, this is where I would direct research. Geothermal heat can provide:

  • superheated steam from deep inside the earth that comes in contact with pockets of magma relatively near the thin surface crust
  • superheated water that is pumped down to come into contact with molten magma itself.

In the 1950s, project Moho attempted to drill very deep through the earth’s crust to reach its upper mantle. It has since then been taken over by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Although scientists differ in their opinions about why the earth’s interior remains so hot, it appears it will remain that way for billions of years.

 

What the USA immediately needs is less talk and more action on the ways and means of getting and using the energy sources we now have. This is not a time for political posturing on who will get what amounts of money to solve the global-warming-energy-crunch situation. Nor is it enough to stash away barrels of surplus oil, or horde natural gas.

Our country’s present economic down-turn can be solved overnight by investing in research and the facilities that will produce clean coal; useable fuel from vegitation; electricity from ocean currents and tides; wind turbines; solar power; and, in particular, geothermal powerplants.

I would hope that government officials, politicians, and everyone that should be involved in the energy crisis — which means you and me — would read Who Turned Out the Lights. This book is factual but not boring. Its suggestions for energy consumption are meaningful. Its fifteen chapters deliver a potent message: we need to act now. The same type of creative ingenuity that brought home the badly crippled Apollo 13 spacecraft in a matter of days can surely design and implement an energy program before planet earth is too crippled to call home.

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