Horn of plenty

Which is more “efficient” at capturing the energy in sunlight and storing it for practical use: A large field array of photovoltaic panels, or the same area of plants from the vegetable kingdom? I love to compare apples to oranges; or in this case apples, oranges, weeds, &c, to high-tech human manufactures. At first glance the latter win, even with today’s “developing” technology. This is because the comparison ignores many dimensions of the issue, starting with the storage. As gentle reader will know from the pop science magazines, our batteries are extremely inefficient, big heavy clunky things, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Photosynthesis in living plants is comparatively modest. A much smaller proportion of sunlight is harvested, across a narrower electromagnetic range, than what we can easily conceive. But this is because, typically of nature, the creatures only take what they need. The technological sophistication with which a plant uses a wee twinkle of sunlight to turn carbon dioxide and water into usable carbohydrates is beyond what we can do for trillions of dollars. And when it dies, the plant contributes to the cornucopia of hydrocarbons that were waiting in the ground for human use. All it took was a few million years. And we can make more by (“biofuel”) shortcuts; and hardly need much of what is obviously available.

Meanwhile, consider the lilies of the field, which do not labour or spin. Solomon in all his glory was not adorned as one of these.

Taking only one part of the (highly visible) transport sector in view, I have observed: that not one in ten should need a car, almost all of whom live in the country; and those who do need one need less than one-tenth the horsepower. (Check out tractors.) But we have created instead an economy that is extremely wasteful, especially of human intellect and souls.

There, I have solved the energy problem, in a way that should be popular in California. The question is not how to move the maximum of electrons, but how to live. I don’t own a car myself. I can still walk, without even a cane. And when I can’t, canes are cheap. Luckily for me I have inherited two!

Unfortunately my co-habitants on this planet are a wilful species. Unless you impoverish them, they will buy cars that are bigger and more powerful every year, enfibrillating both urban and rural landscapes. Anything that makes energy cheaper will encourage them. We should try to make it more expensive. Alas, we have got beyond the point where even a good war in the Middle East would be very helpful.

More could be said, I know, about the other transport sectors and the rest of modern industry, but I try to restrict myself to a few hundred words.

A photovoltaic tile is an ugly thing. True, it can pay for itself in thirty years, but it will break after twenty or less, and often in the first hailstorm. And then, rather than hydrocarbons, it leaves an array of hideous poisons that will eventually cost even more to clean up, than it cost to assemble in the first place. Verily, solar power is among the most environmentally toxic methods of generating energy that man has yet invented. Advanced wind turbines run it a close second. If we had any environmental conscience, we would ban both of these technologies, for starters.

The hippies of half a century ago had a few things right. Unfortunately, they had most things wrong. But the notion that we should adapt peacefully to the rhythms of nature is an old, old one, and can be easily achieved if we all become Catholic mystics. Or even if most of us do. Let us spend our surpluses on shrines and monasteries, and our free moments in prayer.

And rather than on moving about faster and faster, we should consider the lilies. They do not move at all.