Glorified Water Wheels

Here’s an interesting list of the electricity breakdown by energy source in the US in 2016, courtesy of the EIA:

  • Natural gas = 33.8%
  • Coal = 30.4%
  • Nuclear = 19.7%
  • Renewables (total) = 14.9%
    • Hydropower = 6.5%
    • Wind = 5.6%
    • Biomass = 1.5%
    • Solar  = 0.9%
    • Geothermal = 0.4%

This is probably obvious to everyone reading this, but I only just recently had the realization that the vast majority (~99%?) of our electricity is produced via glorified water wheels. That is, we either stick a wheel somewhere where’s already a flow (in a river for water or in the air for wind) or we just boil water ourselves to spin our big wheels.

For example, how exactly is wind energy generated? Well, we stick a fan on a big stick and wait for the wind to come by. As the wind passes it spins the turbine and voila, energy!

What about hydropower? Dams are colossal feats of engineering. For example, the Hoover Dam cost over 100 lives, $700 million inflated adjusted dollars, and enough concrete to “pave a road from San Francisco to New York“. It generates electricity when the water passing by flows through turbines and causes them to spin.

Coal plants produces around 30% of our domestic energy. How do they work? Well, first we mine some coal and then dump it into a firebox. Then we pump water through the box. The water gets hot, turned into steam, and then, you guessed it, spins a turbine.

Natural gas and oil works similarly. Sometimes instead of using the produced heat to boil the water to spin the turbines they instead spin the turbines with the byproducts of the ignited gas itself, but it’s all the same idea.

Biomass is only 1.5% but let’s do it anyway. Surprise, we just dump a bunch of wood chips, tree stumps, garbage, or whatever into a pile and burn it to heat water into steam that turns turbines.

Geothermal energy is even less at 0.4% and you can probably guess how this one ends. However, instead of heating the water ourselves we just pipe up already hot water from underground. This water is then piped into a turbine and .. yeah.

What about nuclear power? Now we’re getting to the real shit. This is the result of the collaboration of some of the greatest minds in modern history, all focusing on quite literally splitting the atom to release untold amounts of power and destruction. We are able to use mere milligrams of some of the universe’s heaviest elements to decimate countries. It’s also pretty good at boiling water to turn into steam that spins turbines.

But at least there’s solar power! Our saving grace! It may only be 1%, but at least it’s not the same old boring “hey this burns well; let’s use it to boil water to spin some turbines.” We create solar panels with silicon and then place them in sunny areas with lots of photons flying around. When photons hit these solar cells they excite the electrons within them that causes them to flow through the material. We can then hook up a battery or something to these panels so the electrons flow into that for later consumption.

This seems too good to be true. Who’s this solar guy think he is? We’ve got rules around here-if you want to generate electricity you use turbines! You can just stick a turbine in some water or in the air to catch the water or wind flowing past, but we’d kinda prefer you just stick to boiling water with whatever you’ve got lying around. You think you’re special because you found an alternative to spinning wheels? We demand conformity! Ah, much better.


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