The Virgin, the Dynamo and the Darkness

When Henry Adams traveled to Paris for the Great Exposition in 1900, he had an epiphany about the century that was just dawning.

Walking into a room of electricity-generating dynamos, he realized that these devices were more than just “an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal.”

Instead, Adams — one of the great writers and thinkers of his day — saw “the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the cross.”

It turns out, he was spot on.  In the decades that followed, energy became the central motivating force in the affairs of men.

After tens of thousands of years in which the primary civilizing forces were intellect, faith and raw muscle power, humans began to unleash and harness pure energy.

From the first clumsy steam engines and crude kerosenes cooked up in home stills to the awesome technologies that shape modern atomic power plants, the exact shape of the dynamo has changed and evolved.

But the basic principle identified by Adams remained the same.  Strip away all the muddle and “superfluous rags” of our busy  lives and you find that we live and breath energy.

Without a ready supply of the dynamo’s bountiful fruits, everything that we think of as modern civilization grinds to a halt, from the cars we drive to the foods we eat to the thoughts and ideas that flash in packets of light across the web.

But we have reached a new stage, a transitional moment where we can no longer be devoutly confident that the supply of energy will continue.

It’s not just the crisis unfolding in Japan, where one of those shiny, glittering dynamos smolders with dangerous unhinged power.

It’s also the grim memory of last summer’s fiery blast in the Gulf of Mexico, where the sea was stained for months with ugly sworls of crude.

It was last year’s Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in West Virginia, which left 29 men dead and buried deep underground.

It’s the sweeping unrest in the Middle East, where much of our energy supply lies tangled up in the murderous politics of a culture very different from our own.

It’s the rapidly accelerating demand for oil — from China and India — even as ready supplies dwindle.

And it’s the growing certainty that our consumption of fossil fuels, the primary life-blood of the dynamo, is gradually changing the very chemistry of our atmosphere.

When Henry Adams wrote his essay in the early 1900s, he contrasted the new dynamism with the fading power of Man’s faith in the Virgin Mary, especially here in the buddingly vibrant United States.

“An American Virgin would never dare command” our destiny, he argued.

This was a country wedded not to mystery and tradition and doctrinal reverence, but to the confidence and power of harnessed energy.

Yet now, almost exactly a century later, we find that our faith in the dynamo is every bit as fragile and uncertain as our faith in the Virgin.

Indeed, the primary question that will shape all of our lives over the next generation isn’t whether we vote Republican or Democrat, or whether we balance the budget, or whether we cure cancer, or rebuild the economy.

Strip away all that muddle — as Adams did at the Great Exposition — and there is only one essential quandary:

Will we find safe, sustainable and affordable ways to fuel the great dynamos that drive our modern age?

This is a challenge that should invite no discord, no partisanship.

We should all agree that there is no more important investment of our creativity, our scholarship, our treasure and our national will.

The search for better and more enduring sources of energy should be more than our generation’s Manhattan Project or our quest for the moon.

This must be the great American endeavor, the one defining effort that will shape all our future pursuits.

If we don’t answer this question, successfully and soon, many of the great power plants and energy mills that dot our landscape will go dark.

They will sit empty and strange and cold, the monuments of a past era every bit as mysterious as Lourdes or Chartres.

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26 Responses to “The Virgin, the Dynamo and the Darkness”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Nothing mystical going on here, although poetry is always fun.
    My first thought when reading your post was an old movie I caught in pieces yesterday or the day before. It was, I think, Escape from LA where Snake kills the worldwide power grid and all the lights go off.
    Kurt Russel is always fun to watch as he defeats the bad guys, including the President of the United States.
    But on a more serious note, we do need to go forward and stop treading water. Tinker Toys such as the Ipad are not a good substitute for real progress. We need to set our sights higher than just the 150,000 mph achieved by Helios back in the 70′s on its trip to the Sun.
    We need fusion power and until we can figure how to get it, we will need nuclear fission. I know. It can be dangerous but so too are all forms of power as are clearly proven every time there is a hurricane, earthquake and volcanic eruption.

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  2. PNElba says:

    As I said previously, I think we can (and should) skip fusion power and learn to get our power directly from the Sun’s energy. If a plant can do it, we should be able to figure it out.

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  3. newt says:

    Excellent, Brian.

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  4. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I still say we encourage efforts at making all of us energy producers. Via feed in tariffs and a much larger portion of the gov’t subsidies now passed onto big oil, natural gas, nuclear, etc., we can make it profitable for residential and commercial entities to generate far more power than just what their home or building needs and then pass the excess onto the grid.

    We could do this with the newer more efficient mulit-spectrum solar technology coming on line soon as well as with fuel cells such as the Bloom Box powered by solar, natural gas, propane, algae produced bio-fuels, etc. And of course, conservation of our already fossil fuel produced energy. This is a long term solution however, that would require a new approach and also the pushing aside of those interests that control our energy for their own profit. It should be this generations “Manhattan Project.”

    The technology for this sea change is close at hand but the real challenge is making everyone a part of the solution. To do that we should encourage everyone to become a producer and not just a user of energy. Imagine thousands, even millions, of small energy producers all across the country.

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  5. oa says:

    Lots of people are starting to think about this stuff, and would really like to avoid relying on using Gadhaffi and Al Qaeda-funding oil suppliers, West VA strip mines and cruddy old GE nuke plants for energy. Some of these people, though, are liberals. But this report is interesting, and worth a download if you’re really interested in different possible approaches:

    http://www.grist.org/article/2011-02-03-how-to-get-to-100-percent-renewables-globally-by-2050

    All hail Dark Lord Soros!

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  6. Mervel says:

    The key is not subsidizing energy; let the best most efficient source come forward or a combination of energy sources. If the government is heavily involved they will make the wrong choices.

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  7. Mervel says:

    Plus the Virgin Mary has not gone anywhere she is still alive and loves us very much.

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  8. Bret4207 says:

    Interesting. I agree we need to move forward. But, we have obstacles. Look at one of the recent local laws passed here in NYS. Our benevolent gov’t effectively outlawed outdoor wood boiler installations. To be blunt, that was nothing but sheer stupidity compounded by a generous heap of politically correct do gooderism. Things like that and the arguments over wind power, power lines, coal or natural gas CO2, etc. just let you know this isn;t going to be easy or simple, much less inexpensive.

    I’d be very interested in producing power at the home level. I’ve looked into wind (we’re in a good place for wind) and solar. Both are unbelievably expensive! And that’s just the mill or PV arrays. Then there are the controls and storage. It’s very expensive. Wind could work if I built my own mill and blades, but you still have storage and controls to consider. I do not believe it’s the gov’t (taxpayers) job to subsidize me or anyone else in ventures like this. It’s that type of thinking that’s got us here today. Anyway, the most logical and workable solution for us is wood gassification, a crude, simple, method of producing power from a genset with local biofuels. In fact, you can even run a common auto or truck on wood gas.

    Of course, as soon as a few people start using wood gas the whiners will start in about “fumes” or something and the DEC will march in and put an end to it all.

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  9. DeeBee says:

    The power and energy companies need to be open to changing their business model from just delivery of energy (electric, gas, oil, etc) to homes and businesses to possibly rental of individual production equipment and capture of excess energy.

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  10. tootightmike says:

    We can make the biggest and fastest strides by focusing on conservation measures. Conserve first…put up solar panels later.

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  11. Bret4207 says:

    Mike has a point. Conservation is a good start. How many places do you go by at night that are all lit up? How many parking lots and malls are bright as day 24/7? That would help, but there’s a cost with that too- crime. How many people have to drive 1-2 hours to get to a discount retailer like Walmart simply because local self interested parties blocked the big retailers from coming in? Go by any of our colleges or schools and look at the wasted energy. Same for many municipal buildings.

    No matter how you cut this issue up for every action there is a reaction or cost or effect. I know that personally we try and conserve as much as we can. It’s a fight. We’ve grown fat, lazy and helpless. That’s going to take a long time or a major paradigm shift to undo.

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  12. mervel says:

    People get excited about conserving when the cost goes up. Why conserve when electricity is really really cheap, which it is.

    How much does it cost to leave lights on and not turn of our computers 24/7? Not very much really.

    As long as energy is cheap people will not conserve, so why is energy so cheap when we have a so called crisis?

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  13. Walker says:

    I don’t know, Bret, about that “for every action there is a reaction or cost or effect”– sounds like a rationalization for doing nothing. A lot of conservation measures are pure gain after the initial cost is made up. And some, such as walking more, pay back in health as well as economically. As for driving two hours to get to a Walmart, the obvious alternative is Amazon: free shipping on orders over $25, and while there is still a carbon cost to the delivery, it’s a whole lot less than hauling your 5,000 lb car over a hundred mile round-trip.

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  14. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Here’s an interesting twist on solar applications. As I said in my previous post, we just need to encourage people to become for profit energy producers on a small and medium scale, along with becoming serious about energy conservation, and we really can improve things. Part of this sea change includes casting aside the “net metering” concept that protects organizations such as National Grid and move toward the feed in tariff concept which encourages innovations such as mentioned below.

    From the NPR website:

    Midsize Solar Installations Grow At Light Speed Listen
    March 16, 2011 ShareShare
    View and comment on NPR.org

    As Tim Nilsen steps into one of his barns outside Sacramento, Calif., hundreds of turkeys snap to attention.

    Turkeys are the name of the game at Nilsen Farms. But his property is also serving up something else — solar energy for about 750 homes in the community.

    That’s because the property is also home to an 8-acre solar array — a field of shiny black panels. A lot of customers want solar, but for one reason or another, they would rather not have panels on their house, says Jim Burke, a program manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

    Burke says it became apparent that “there’s really no reason why we had to climb on top of somebody’s perfectly good roof and drill a hole in it. We could actually come out to a larger facility like this, [and] take advantage of the economies of scale.”

    Renewable power is on the rise across the country. But for states with ambitious clean energy goals like California, it isn’t growing fast enough. That has them turning to a new kind of renewable project — midsized solar farms. Many are calling it the Goldilocks of renewable energy.

    A ‘Sweet Spot’ In The Middle

    Much like community-supported agriculture, the array in Sacramento is a community-supported solar project. Customers, many of whom are interested in the environmental benefits, pay an average of $11 more a month for electricity from these solar panels, which are only 30 miles from downtown Sacramento. The idea is catching on.

    In the hills of San Francisco, officials and politicians recently turned on the brand new Sunset Reservoir solar array. It’s the size of 12 football fields, which is not too big, but not too small.

    That makes it just right for Arno Harris, the CEO of Recurrent Energy, the company that built the project.

    “What we think really is the sweet spot is this place in the middle,” he says.

    Harris says it was tough at first to get people interested in a project this size. Most of the financing was going to huge solar farms that cover hundreds of acres.

    “With those large projects, what you run into is that they take a really long time to deliver and there are all sorts of gotchas along the way,” he says.

    Avoiding The Obstacles Plaguing Larger Projects

    Those gotchas have to do with a complex permitting process in California. It’s an even longer process if the land is home to sensitive species like tortoises in the Mojave Desert.

    Harris says midsized projects avoid those problems. They’re built faster than large solar farms, and installation costs are still relatively cheap. The company is also working in Arizona and New Jersey, where interest in these “Goldilocks” solar farms is

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  15. Walker says:

    Great idea! Fills me with questions, though. Is Saranac Lake too small a community for an idea like this to work? How big an array would it take to power one of the Tri-Lakes communities. Are solar installations given much heavier subsidies in California than here in NY?

    And what about the grid? Have you noticed that more than half of your electric bill is “delivery services”? So National Grid would still grab a hefty share of our electric bills.

    Anyway, soon as the Community Store is up and running, it’s time to start work on the Community Electric Plant!

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  16. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Walker,

    You raise an interesting point. How about consideration for a twist on municipal power? For instance since there are numerous twists and turns to establishing a municipal power company outright (the conspiracy theorist in me thinks this is to protect for profit energy companies like National Grid), what if a community circumvented these roadblocks by establishing a large solar array, along with perhaps several windmills and even a co-generation plant, in order to produce electricity for a profit? People in the community could invest in a fashion similar to the community store.

    While they wouldn’t get cheap power directly, they could off set their electric bill, or any other liability, via their share of the profits possibly generated from the electrical production. And at the same time, they buy the equipment and pay for the installation and maintenance of the facility from local contractors. If we could force the Public Service Commission to remove “net metering” and replace it with feed in tariffs, the pay offs could be huge. In a sense, it’s a way to create a municipal power company without going through the insane approval process.

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  17. Walker says:

    “If we could force the Public Service Commission to remove net metering…” A very big if in our pay-to-play government.

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  18. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    Walker,

    Absolutely right, sadly. And by the way, there was legislation at one point in time in, I believe, the Assembly, to institute a feed in tariff system in New York. This was a year or so ago. I have not heard of it since. Other states are moving forward with this concept and removing “net metering.” Florida is one such example. If you’re not familiar with the feed in tariff concept, it’s very popular in Europe. Particularly Germany, Spain, Italy, etc…It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a vast improvement on net metering.

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  19. Bret4207 says:

    Walker, on the reaction stuff, not at all. I’m pointing out that in my experience as soon as someone comes up with an idea there will instantly be 20 people out to shoot him down. What’s really bothersome is when the people calling for a fix to an issue, fossil fuel dependence in this case, are the same people fighting answers to the issue! It’s hypocrisy to say we need win or solar and then fight wind or solar.

    Amazon? It’s fine for some stuff, but it doens’t work for the majority of things. You don’t order groceries, oil and antifreeze from Amazon do you? It has it’s limits. If you need cough medicine and fever meds at 10:30PM on a Saturday night you aren’t ordering it from Amazon and the Mom and Pop isn’t open to night or Sunday.

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  20. Bret4207 says:

    Solar in Saranac Lake? You guys did notice snow, clouds, fog, mountian shadows, etc. right? You want local power for Saranac Lake you make use of the water you have right there. There are a lot of places we could install mini or micro hyro. Why does everyone ignore the obvious?

    On that article from NPR- An 8 acre solar array…what does that cost and who pays for it? That’s one of the biggest problems with solar, it’s simply a very, very expensive project across the board. In hard economic times how do you do it? It’s great if you have the funding, but go and look into the cost, it’s simply staggering.

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  21. mervel says:

    It is interesting.

    What is fascinating is that our NYS and Federal government for all of the “talk” about alternative energy has written the rules and regulations to subsidize and protect traditional energy monopolies.

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  22. tootightmike says:

    On Friday mornings news, we hear the President and various scientific types assure us that no radioactive fallout will reach the U.S. At lunch time Friday, I check my e-mail and read a news story saying that radiation HAS reached the west coast…..
    Nuclear power will never be safe if our governments insist upon lying about the dangers.

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  23. tootightmike says:

    Bret, Go to West Virginia or Southern Ohio, and tell me how much it casts to remove the entire mountaintop to get to the coal seam, and how much it costs to put it all back when they’re done. And while you’re there take note of how nice it is afterward.

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  24. Bret4207 says:

    I’m sorry Mike, but I’ve looked back through my posts in this thread and I don’t see any comments I made regarding coal mining. I know I’ve mentioned clean coal in the past, but I don’t see where I’ve ever mention strip mining.

    BTW- Been there, seen it, agree that many efforts are ugly in the end.

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  25. Mervel says:

    The one thing that seems consistent about nuclear energy is lying. Wherever nuclear energy exists it seems to involve lying to the public.

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  26. Walker says:

    “That’s one of the biggest problems with solar, it’s simply a very, very expensive project across the board.”

    Bret – substitute “nuclear” for “solar,” and yet we’ve had people clamoring for more nukes. Take the money that people were willing to put into a nuclear plant and spend it on a solar plant.

    And before you say, “Oh, but solar is even more expensive than nuclear”, consider the fact that the cost of nuclear power never really covers the cost of containing the waste for the thousands of years that it will remain toxic.

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