Only the Energy Impoverished Run Towards a Gasoline Spill

There was a horrible accident in Kenya this week.  More than 100 people were burned to death, and hundreds more were injured when a gasoline pipeline began leaking and then exploded.  My heart goes out to the victims, and their families, and to all the people of Kenya who are dealing with the worst industrial disaster in their history.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing burning people leaping into a nearby river trying to extinguish the flames that engulfed them.  Rescue workers had to place a net across the river to catch the charred bodies of the dead so they would not wash down stream. The death toll continues to grow, and most of the 100+ injured including many children are not expected to survive. The pipeline runs through Sinai, a Nairobi ghetto of corrugated tin and cardboard huts.  When the pipe began leaking hundreds of people gathered around to scoop up the spilled gasoline.  As the crowd grew a spark from a cigarette butt or some other heat source ignited the fuel.  The blast incinerated scores of people nearby.  Flames cascaded down on nearby huts then raced through the crowded slum. Trying to image the chaotic and horrific scene, I realized there was something so far outside my own paradigm that I had to stop for moment to collect my thoughts…who runs TOWARDS a leaking gasoline pipeline?  Maybe that’s a silly question; but if anyone reading this came upon a leaking gasoline pipeline they would stop, back away, and call for help.  You would keep your distance while warning others not to go near for fear of igniting the leak and causing a fire or explosion.  If you were forced to approach the leak you would fear for your life and rightfully so! So what is different between you and the hundreds of people in Kenya that did the exact opposite?  As word spread through Sinai about the leaking pipeline hundreds of people grabbed every container they could find and rushed towards the explosive spill! You might settle on a simple socioeconomic answer: because they are poor they’ll risk their lives for a few dollars worth of anything of value.  The real answer is a lot more complicated.  These people are not only poor, they are super poor, and one of the factors that separates the poor from truly impoverished is the lack of access to even basic energy sources that human beings need to survive.  They are energy destitute. Another way of saying this is availability of plentiful, accessible energy is the greatest single factor that allows people to rise out of poverty.  All of the world’s developed economies got...

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Lessons from Dr. Evil (Episode 67)

Listen to the podcast here. Have you noticed that the numbers we use in daily conversation keep getting bigger and bigger? When I was young my father pointed out to me that a family who had one million dollars could live off the interest alone, and would have a tough time spending it all. While that was certainly true at the time, the value of a million dollars is not what it used to be. If you listen to the podcast you’ll hear an audio clip of one of my favorite movie villains to help illustrate my point.  Even Dr. Evil had trouble comprehending the size of a billion dollars, but what hundreds of billions or even a trillion? We hear and read those numbers in the news and in conversation, but what do they really mean? It’s easy to understand the number of zeros that make them different, but that still be pretty abstract. I contend that many of us really don’t comprehend how large those numbers are when it comes to measuring things in the real world.  We need visual or mental references to help us understand the scale of such large quantities. Let’s use electrical power as an example. The base unit of measure for electrical power is the Watt, but what is the difference between a watt, a KW, a MW, and a GW? 1 watt will barely power a small incandescent light bulb like a bathroom night light. 1 kilowatt (1,000 watts) is equal ~ 1.3 HP, about the same energy output as a small lawn mower engine. The average household in the USA uses about 1 KW of electricity on an on-going basis if averaged over an entire year. 1 Megawatt (1 million watts) is enough electricity to power a small town. Large diesel locomotive engines generate in the 3 to 5 MW range. 1 Gigawatt (1 billion watts) is the size of a large central station power plant, and is enough energy to power about 1 million homes. 1 Terawatt (1 trillion watts) is energy on a continental scale. The total worldwide electricity demand is about 15 TW. Now to the real point of this podcast – I want to talk about carbon capture and storage, and the scale of the challenge this concept presents. To put it bluntly, the scale is bigger than huge, it’s even bigger than enormous. The amount of carbon dioxide gas released by coal and natural gas plants is planetary in scale. Let me describe what I mean by that. The US DOE estimates that US and Canada stationary power plants produce 3.8 billion tones of CO2...

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