The Visigoths sack Washington

By Michael Hall

The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe living on the border of the Roman Empire, sacked Rome in 410 AD and soon they will do it again in Washington on the banks of the Potomac. Of all the times Rome was sacked, it was one of the least bloody and destructive. All the Visigoths wanted was gold, silver and loot. After the sack they led their treasure-laden pack animals home to their villages only to discover an undeniable and eternal truth: You can’t eat gold and silver. No amount of treasure will fill a baby’s empty belly or give strength to a plow horse. The Spanish empire, with the gold and silver riches of the Americas, found that out a thousand years later. Adam Smith explained 200 years ago the wealth of a nation is measured in farms, factories, food and clothes and the living standards of the people. Now our government proposes to spend almost $2 trillion on an economic stimulus bill. As our leaders in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, prepare to load up their pack animals and head off to their “villages,” shouldn’t we know what we are buying for our $2 trillion?

I am not a “newly awoken, come to Jesus” deficit hawk like many Republicans are. I have no problem spending from the public purse. However, I understand the difference between spending on investment and spending on consumption. “Give a person a fish and they are fed for a day. Teach a person to fish and they are fed for life” sums up the difference. How many Erie Canals, Hoover Dams or lunar colonies will a number “two” followed by 12 zeroes buy (2,000,000,000,000)? As citizens and taxpayers, we should know if our $2 trillion is an investment or a happy meal. Let us imagine one possible scenario, do a little off-the-cuff math, and see what we come up with.

The Scandinavian countries have the most experience with off-shore wind turbines, so we use their numbers. The average cost of a deep-water offshore wind turbine is $1.2 million per megawatt (MW). The average size of a turbine is 12MW or $14.4 million, rounded up to an even $15 million each. Our $2 trillion stimulus divided by $15 million per turbine will buy us 134,000 twelve-megawatt offshore wind turbines. 

According to Google maps, it is 3,000 miles from Bangor, Maine, to London, England. Spain to Florida is 4,500 miles, Los Angeles to Hawaii is 2,500 miles and from Tokyo, Japan, to Seattle, Wash., is 4,700 miles. Total distance for those routes equals 14,700 miles or 77,600,000. Dividing the distance by the number of wind turbines $2 trillion would buy, we could have an offshore wind turbine every 600 feet from Maine to England, Spain to Florida, Los Angeles to Hawaii and Tokyo to Seattle. A person could swim to Hawaii, stopping every mile when they tired or sail to England from Maine and follow a line of turbines on their port side and back to the States by way of Spain to Florida. While we do have trans-Atlantic undersea cables, so many wind turbines would require a transmission line of ridiculous size. What other options are there?

One hundred and thirty years ago, in 1891, a Danish inventor by the name of Poul La Cour built an electrical generating windmill outside of Copenhagen and used it to split sea water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. He then piped the hydrogen into a local school for heating and lights. Hydrogen, though, is difficult to use. As a gas it has a very low density and takes a lot of space to store. To liquefy hydrogen, it has to be cooled to minus 423 degrees. At that temperature, metal containers become brittle and the tiny hydrogen atoms still can migrate through metal tank walls. 

But marry the hydrogen up with a fat little carbon atom and you get CH4 or natural gas. CH4 liquifies at only minus 250 degrees and the carbon atoms prevent the gas from seeping through walls. The world has a well-established network of natural gas lines and years of experience handling liquid natural gas. Natural gas can also be sourced from decomposing biomass, natural gas wells, fracking or a bowl of baked beans. Best of all, technology already exists to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, combine it with hydrogen in the presence of a catalyst and voila, SNG, synthetic natural gas. When the gas is used the hydrogen goes back into water and the carbon gets released, only to be captured again. No global warning, a perpetually renewable cycle. 

Imagine sitting on your front porch on a summer day in a world where open ocean deep-water wind turbines steadily turn in the breeze and reliably make synthetic liquefied natural gas, just waiting for the next transport ship to stop by and empty its on-board storage tanks. 

Imagine sitting in your house shivering in the winter dark and living in a world where the Visigoths have sacked Rome on the Potomac and hauled away the treasure and loot, leaving nothing behind as they load up their pack animals and head back to their congressional districts and states.

Michael Hall lives in Trenton. He earned a degree in economics from the University of Maine at Orono. Between active service and the National Guard, he spent 24 years in the Army. 

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