Sunday, October 06, 2013

Three (Four) Kinds of Energy

There are at least three kinds of energy in this photo on Nassau Street. One is the gasoline for sale in the background, the second is the firewood, and a third is something called "embedded energy", which can be found in the solid oak chest of drawers and the 1994 Ford pickup.

There are also three kinds of scavenging going on. Two are obvious and above ground: the firewood and the abandoned vintage furniture. The third is both universal and hidden. Civilization as we currently know it is based on a massive scavenger operation, digging up energy and minerals from underground.

Each of these kinds of energy and scavenging have global consequences.

I always thought of gas stations as just another town business, but seen from the perspective of the planet, they are part of a climate change industry, the impact of which, in addition to the highly convenient aspect of getting us where we need to go, is to liberate carbon from its underground storage.

Some would say that burning gas has the same climate consequences as burning wood, but that's not the case. They both release carbon dioxide, but the carbon in each is different. The energy for sale at the gas station is from ancient underground deposits of oil. By the time it gets into the truck's gas tank, a lot of energy has already been burned. There's the exploration, the extraction, the transport to a refinery, the refining, and the transport to the gas station.

Gasoline contains strings of carbon left over from ancient life. You could say there's solar energy stored in the bonds between the carbon atoms, but the last time that carbon saw the light of day, the climate and life on earth were very different. Ancient life extracted carbon from the air, then died and settled into the watery ooze. Gravity, pressure, and time all contributed to transforming that ancient life into massive underground storage of carbon in fossil fuel. All that extracting of carbon from the atmosphere over hundreds of millions of years cooled and tempered the climate. To exhume these graveyards of ancient life is to undo the climate in which civilization has flourished up to now.

The carbon in the gasoline is still contained, still locked up in chains. In fact, because it's been contained and underground for millions of years, its carbon is different from the above ground carbon that has been getting exposed to radiation from the sun. This difference, found in the relative percentage of carbon isotopes, can be measured, which is how we know that enough ancient carbon has already been pumped into the atmosphere to increase the carbon dioxide level by 40%.

It's the truck engine that performs the carbon's liberation, using fire to break the chains and release the wonderful burst of energy that propelled my heavy truck magically up Linden Lane with nothing more than a nudge to the gas pedal. While I'm enjoying such ease, the backside of the truck is quietly sending the ghosts of life and climate-past back up into the atmosphere.

That's why I use those machines as little as possible, and that's why the wood is in the back of the truck.

The second kind of energy is the firewood. It was a custom in Princeton Borough, when street trees needed to be removed, to leave the wood at the curb, conveniently cut to size, for homeowners to scavenge. That custom apparently lives on, at least occasionally, post-consolidation. For those of us with wood stoves, this free heat provides a way to limit how often the furnace kicks on.

Now, doesn't burning wood also release carbon into the atmosphere? It does, but that carbon was already part of the above-ground system, part of the present era's climate. The trees pulled it out of the atmosphere, stored it for 50 or 60 years, and the wood stove returns it. This is a cycling of carbon, not a linear movement of carbon from deep underground storage up into the atmosphere.

The alternative to burning the wood is to have it chipped up and trucked out of town for composting. A useful product is created, but that highly mechanized process, which includes mechanical mixing and remixing during the composting process, uses more gasoline, and the wood's carbon still gets released back into the atmosphere through the "slow burn" of decomposition. Though there's some air pollution associated with burning wood, the highly mechanized composting alternative also pollutes, and a well-tended wood stove is far cleaner than a fireplace. To collect firewood in the neighborhood, then, actually reduces climate change by reducing the fuel used to truck and compost the wood outside of town.

The wood, then, could be called "today's energy", as opposed to the ancient energy from underground, and it is "local energy", gathered nearby as opposed to whatever distant locale the gasoline comes from. It is also energy that didn't require industrializing some landscape, in stark contrast to oil drilling and fracking.

Harvesting the wood from a tree also allows a chance to celebrate the tree's life, to participate in a transformation from sadness to joy. Princeton has been losing a lot of red oaks and pin oaks to a disease called bacterial leaf scorch. To ram the remains into a giant chipper and haul it all out of town, there to mix anonymously with all the others, is to give short shrift to this tree's long life of giving shade, beauty and habitat to a Princeton thoroughfare. Splitting up the segments for firewood, the massive trunk laying there on the curb, is to experience something of what Eskimos must have felt, harvesting the life-sustaining blubber of a beached whale. The rich texture and color of the grain reveals itself with each new split--too beautiful for firewood, but no one is there to turn it into furniture. The back of the pickup truck fills with the promise of a future celebration of the tree's life, in the beauty of the flames and the radiant warmth on a winter evening.

Embedded energy
Embedded energy, the third type in the first photo, is the energy that went into making things. For the pickup truck, there was the energy to build it, to mine the iron ore, manufacture and transport all the parts, plus the miles the employees drove to work, the heating and cooling of the factory, on and on. The chest of drawers also took energy to build, and to consign it to the landfill would be to lose the product of all that energy.

As with the firewood, there is an aesthetic aspect to this rescue of crafted wood: the beauty of the grain, the authenticity of solid wood, and the pleasure of rescuing something from premature demise. The same impulse is central to the artistic process, which fashions beauty out of experience and the materials at hand.

Repair Energy
The truck and oak chest, though, require a fourth kind of energy to survive. That would be the energy to repair--a very special kind of human energy that comes partly from the metabolism of food and partly from the mysteries of the heart and mind. We all have it, but it can remain dormant for days, months, or with some projects, years, stifled by the abundance of new products, or a lack of time, parts, focus, ability or confidence. It involves courage to take on entropy, which seeks to unravel all things.

That is the world as seen from the back of a pickup truck parked on Nassau Street.

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