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Friday, April 18, 2014

Fuel economy: irrelevant or distracting?

Fuel economy... really? 
As a rule, what do you think of when you buy a car? Comfort? Amenities? Looks? Shiny? Reliability? Power? Fuel economy? How about asking how much resources the machine cost to build in the first place? Why not ask what the total cost to the planet is instead of just looking at one little part of the energy story. Why only MPG? 

 Have you ever pondered how a machine gets built? From the ore in the ground, to the machine you operate, there are alot of steps in the process, and an immense amount of energy already invested before the owner even takes it off the sales lot. This invested energy (aka embodied energy, or inherent energy) is rarely considered, rarely thought of, and even less often remarked on as far as resource consumption. Fuel economy is a small part of the picture, but its all that seems to get any press.  

In order to obtain metals, we need ores from the Earth. In order to obtain ore, we need big digging tools, in order to have big digging tools we need ore and metal. The circle has been cast as it were, and now we cannot escape that circle, nor separate one portion of it from any another. We spend energy to dig, expend energy to transport and refine, spend energy to smelt and cast, forge, cut and grind, and then yet more energy to transport the final product to where it gets used. And that machine that has cost so much to build has not done a smidgen of work for us yet. Zero, zip zilch. Nada.  Nothing at all to benefit us.

The simple fact is that since no one single company controls the line of materials from mining to sales, we have no easy way to track the exact and actual amount of actual energy that goes into manufacturing a given machine, but we can get close. For instance, just to melt a ton of steel down and bring it up to casting temperatures, it takes 500 to 600kWh of electricity which is lost forever and cannot be regained or replaced. I can operate my home for over a year on that amount of electricity. That's alot of coffee and fruit smoothies made, writing and research done, tools operated and stuff built to melt down a ton of steel. And molten steel is still useless!  With its inherent invested energy, molten steel now has inherent value as well.  But no real worth.

Once it is cast, then the steel needs to be cut, ground, tapped, welded, milled and machined in many ways- all of which require more electricity- and still, at this stage, its just a useless chunk of metal!  All the components in a car, truck, motorcycle, train, crane, excavator... whatever, started out the same- as raw materials that need to become something useful to fulfill a purpose.  Rubber, aluminum, plastics, steel, glass, copper and all the electronics in modern machines all started as massive investments of energy and resources to become something that consumes even more resources in the form of fuel to do it job. This entire process only consumes, nothing provides any return on investment. NONE. 

Perceived ROI comes in the form of getting to work faster, moving tons of freight at once, saving our backs and doing things quickly that would take teams of people months of planning to make happen without machines. But its never a return. Its always a loss, always using precious resources and energy to build and operate, then more energy invested to recycle and rebuild. Machines and the energy we invest to build them have allowed us to be lazier and less productive while over-populating the planet because machines can do much of the food production work that Human power had to provide for so long. 

 Machines do my work for me and bring my food to me. Gotta love it. How many meals do I have to skip to feed the machine that does my work for me? All of them, for many lifetimes, thats how many. If I compare my food input to work output, and a machines fuel consumption to its work output, I will lose every time, and badly. Even the simple and inefficient steam engine can do more work per unit of energy input than any human. When it comes to efficiency, machines win hands down every time. 

Another factor here tho, is the idea that machines save human labor hours and do jobs we simply cannot, thus allowing us time to think and devise new ways of solving problems because we are not working physically 16 hrs a day just to survive. So yes, I see how the above comparison is unfair.  But simply allowing more of us to live on the planet is not necessarily a good thing ecologically.  So is this way of life actually saving us? And if so, what?

 I also recognize that there is no way to quantify our wonderful human minds and the abilities that our brains have to visualize and thus alter reality and find unique solutions to vexing problems when liberated to ponder, imagine, and philosophize. That mind, being freed by machines from the menial tasks of mere survival, can take on bigger ideas like social structure, building libraries, and getting to Mars (oooh oooh- send me!!)

So far as machines go, animals (humans included here) are some of the most inefficient ever created, so any machine makes better use of fuel to convert to work than any animal. Give me a tractor over a horse to plow my fields any day.  A horse needs constant care, a tractor can sit until it is needed; a horse needs its own pasture and hay, and needs feeding every day whether it works or not. Also a tractor can do what 10 or even 50 horses can do, and you just park it when its done working.  One commonality here is maintenance: animals and machines all wear down and must repair.  Animals self repair constantly, machines need preventative and corrective maintenance.

Because humans have more time for other things, we think machines are making life better. Are they really? Yeah, in some ways they are, but overall, I see that the unconscious way we build, use, throw away, recycle and rebuild our machines as being short sighted and small minded at best, and we have yet to see the true consequences of our lack of long-term forethought.

 We need to be building machines with greater longevity and usefulness, lower inherent energy cost and greater forethought toward maintenance and care of those machines because of the tremendous investment of energy and resources they represent. Instead of MPG on the sticker of a car, I want to see total kWh invested, acres of land destroyed to build it, gallons of water, oil, and diesel fuel consumed, tons of coal burnt, nuclear waste created, or tons of CO2 created in the mining, refining, manufacture and transport processes of a newly built machine.  I want real and relevant numbers to make a judgement about it.

 Caring for our machines and extending their useful life means respecting the energy and resources that went into them, which in turn is another way of being grateful for what we have and appreciative for this miraculous and precious little blue marble we all share and call home. 

 When we allow anything less than absolute maximum life from our machines, at the very least we are being wasteful and abusive of the resources we have, and at worst, we are poisoning our own planet and ourselves from our shortsighted idea of entitlement.

  'Because I can' is not an acceptable reason for wasting resources.  We can, and must, to have a future, do better. It is not our planet alone, they are not our energy resources alone, they are not our mines, mountains or oceans. We get to enjoy them while we are here, but shame on us for ruining them and stealing them from future generations.
 Till next time, I hope its been food for thought about what a machine really costs and what its worth.

Throw out a comment if the urge strikes ya... Soon then, MW out.

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