“How many people does it take to…?”

By Richard C. Hill

When chlorofluorocarbons were found to damage the high atmospheric ozone layer, a group of chemists and refrigerator compressor designers found new working fluids and designs that eliminated the problem. The new refrigerators worked as well or better than the old ones and the cost was not increased. I don’t know the number of person-years used in this development, but it was not large.

When lead in paint was identified as a hazard, new formulations were produced without major economic impact. Getting the lead out of gasoline was a bit more difficult as engine modifications had to be made to the engine as well as the fuel. I would wager that the total effort for this transition was a small fraction of the total automotive engineering effort during the transition period.

Now let’s look at this business about coal used to make electricity, the carbon dioxide generated, etc. Depending on mine location and technology, the individual miner productivity ranges as high as 50 tons per hour. The Department if Labor is generous in the definition of a miner: “an employee paid by the hour and at the mine site is a miner.” A worker repairing a diesel engine is a “miner.” If we focus on the person just digging the stuff, the productivity of a “miner” is far greater than 50 tons per hour. A typical Maine household uses about 8,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. An electric plant can produce about one kilowatt-hour for every pound of coal burned. Depending on how you do the math, one miner working for one hour can keep a Maine household in electricity for nearly 10 years!

We were able to get the fluorocarbons out of our refrigerators, the lead out of our paint and gasoline. Let’s work on getting the coal out of electricity generation.

Don’t look at me — miners are too good at what they do.

E.B. White once wrote: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Thus it is for all of us. The people who fix the fluorocarbons and the lead in paint improve the day, while those who give up their skis for snowmobiles and canoes for motorboats tend to enjoy the world while at the same time doing environmental damage. During the recent labor troubles on the West Coast, we saw endless TV coverage of stalled ships offshore and stacks of containers on the docks. I wonder the extent to which the U.S. household has become a way station between Chinese factories and American landfills.

I wish I knew how decisions are made on both the personal and civic level — is it a ball park or an opera house? Do we insulate the basement or build a back deck? I do know that the focus on carbon in the atmosphere is trumping more important social problems: government and corruption problems, malnutrition and hunger, sanitation and access to clean water, etc.

One thing is sure — more dialogue on these matters is essential. But that dialogue must recognize that certain facts stand like stone: (1) In the early days of steam generation of electricity, 20 pounds of coal were required to produce a kilowatt-hour; it now takes one pound — it will never take one-half pound. (2) A wind farm will never produce more than five watts per square meter of wind-farm foot print. (3) Photosynthesis will never generate biomass energy at a rate more than one watt per square meter. Hundreds of such constraints could be listed.

Of the nearly eight billion people on the earth, about five billion live in unacceptable circumstances — nutrition, sanitation, healthcare, etc. If the three billion of us that are well off think that we can grow the world economy to bring the five billion into our standard of living, we are dead wrong. The earth and its resources are simply unavailable for such an accomplishment. In fact, the earth and its resources cannot maintain the status quo. What right do we have to fuss about climate change when half of the hospital beds worldwide are devoted to people with water-borne diseases?

Richard C. Hill of Old Town, now retired, taught engineering at the University of Maine in Orono.

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