woody_zimmerman_118_2007Flashes of insight sometimes occur at unexpected times. I had one recently when I was toting the daily load of advertising catalogs from our mailbox. At our Northern Virginia home the drill starts with the mailman stuffing our curbside mailbox with 10, 15, or even 20 of the glossy circulars on any given day. We retrieve them and then sort through them. Most go into the recycle basket. Once a week we bundle them up and put them into the recycle bin for the Thursday morning pickup. We don’t really know what happens to them after that, but our community association assures us that they are “recycled.”

As I carried in the daily armload of catalogs, it occurred to me that “solution” to the country’s energy problems might be in my own hands. With all the attention on “alternative energy sources,” why can’t we fund research on using one of today’s most abundant energy sources? (That would be the mailer-catalogs.) There is simply no end to them – indeed, the supply seems to be growing.

Surely some of the zillions from Mr. Obama’s “stash” could be spent on developing new technologies: compressing those magazines into log-like fuel, plus stoves to burn them and distribute the heat efficiently in a typical home or apartment. Our house could almost certainly be heated by burning the catalogs. We must receive several tons of them a year. As time goes on, a robust “market” might emerge where surplus catalogs can be sold and bought. A charitable fund of catalogs could also be created.

Not everyone would have to operate his own cata-log machine. Ready-to-use cata-logs could also be offered in stores. Those who prefer not to process their own catalogs would be free to buy the logs already prepared. A vast industry would thus spring up around inexpensive this new fuel.

Our president has been tirelessly traveling round the country – nay, the world – declaiming about creating “alternative-energy sources” to replace fossil fuels. He says we must “win the future” by getting ahead of this critical issue. Accordingly, his administration has authorized the expenditure of big money – perhaps as much as $35 billion – on expensive solar and wind-energy projects of somewhat questionable value. The Solyndra corporation – much in the news lately – recently folded after receiving some $500 million in federal loan guarantees recommended by Mr. Obama’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Other Obama-sponsored alternative-energy projects are also tottering toward bankruptcy.

Most of Mr. Obama’s energy-capital has been expended on projects that would use either sun or wind as a direct energy-source, or that involve manufacture of products related to sun- or wind-power. Harnessing sun and wind is a centuries-old dream, but both come with fundamental problems: (1) the sun doesn’t shine all the time; and (2) the wind doesn’t blow all the time. Those gaps are a serious difficulty when it comes to electricity generation.

For some applications, these limitations are not fatal, of course. In the past, farmers effectively used small windmills to pump water from wells into a surface tank. When the wind blew, the pump could operate, and the water was stored in the tank for later use. As long as a continual flow of water was not required, the sporadic production posed no serious problem.

Since wind can’t produce continual power for generating electricity, conventional generators driven by fossil fuels are always needed as backup. In reality, it’s the other way round – wind can seldom be the primary source. The destruction of birds by the huge windmills is also a growing environmental issue, and many citizens located close to the devices complain of the noise. As noted in an earlier article in this space, many of the prime areas for windmill placement are also highly prized scenic and vacation areas – e.g. Nantucket Sound, where super environmental-warrior Ted Kennedy protested the placement of a bank of windmills because of their proximity to his family’s famous property on Martha’s Vineyard. Generally speaking, windmills are a great idea, but the consensus is “not in my backyard.”

Harnessing solar power is more challenging still. Although sophisticated equipment can certainly concentrate the sun’s rays into significant heat, the basic problem is applying that heat in ways that permit continual generation of electricity – or storing the electricity previously generated for later use. The latter is the fundamental problem for solar-generation of electricity. Until it is solved, solar power will remain a curiosity – rich in political value, but impractical except as an adjunct to conventional power-generation.

In case any of my readers think I actually advocate mailer-catalogs as a serious alternative fuel, let me assure them that my earlier remarks were (mostly) tongue-in-cheek. My point was that most imagined alternatives to coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power are still pipe-dreams – far from reality.

Indeed, a goodly part of our problem with alternative energy is that those pipe-dreams frequently morph into political and legal nightmares. This is because the people who possess the scientific and engineering knowledge about these things lack the power to make sensible political decisions. Conversely, those who can actually make such decisions have nothing like the scientific and engineering knowledge needed to make them intelligently.

You can pass a law mandating that cars drive 100 miles on a gallon of ethanol, for instance, but just passing such a law won’t make it happen. Creative engineering might achieve it, but technical realities could very well make the resultant product unpalatable to the public and commercially unviable. When politicians get involved in such matters, they can easily end up looking ridiculous (at best) and downright dangerous (at worst).

Some reporters and comedians have fun making certain politicians look foolish. One such comedian had an uproarious skit in which a dim-witted “President Reagan” supposedly described a solar research project in which we would send up a rocket to fly close to the sun.

“But doesn’t it get awfully hot up there?” asked one reporter. “We’ve got that covered,” answered the fictional Ronald Reagan with a wink. “We’re gonna do it at night…”

Some of our politically mandated engineering on alternative energy looks almost as dim-witted as that skit. If a technology has commercial potential, private interests will throng forward to finance its development. If it lacks that potential, those interests will decline to invest. The collective judgment of thousands of investors informs and guides these decisions.

No government individual (or small committee of individuals) can make such determinations more intelligently than those myriad investors. It’s tempting to think that they can – especially when it’s the “world’s smartest man” – but experience has repeatedly shown otherwise. An American public fully alive to the dangers of wasteful federal spending would do well to remind politicians that “they don’t know much about science books” or practical engineering.

Maybe I’ll try to raise some venture capital for the cata-log project after all. What the heck…