History and economics of energy use and conservation – a more accurate version


Our memorial to George Washington neared completion in the 1880s.  For an obelisk more than 550 feet tall to honor the Father of Our Country, planners decided to top it with a “capstone” made of the what was, then the most precious metal known on Earth.  The top is a pyramid, and the top of the pyramid is a one-pound block of this precious metal.

What was the most precious metal known to humans in 1880?  Gold?  Platinum?  Tungsten, perhaps, not yet chosen to be filaments in the yet-to-be-perfected Edison “A” lightbulb?

Washington’s Monument is topped with aluminum.

Yeah, aluminum.

“But,” you begin to sputter in protest, “aluminum is almost ubiquitous in soils, and it’s cheap — we use it in soda cans because it’s cheaper than steel or glass, for FSM’s sake!”

Today, yes.  In 1880, no.  Aluminum requires massive amounts of energy to refine the stuff from ore.  Aluminum is common in soils and rocks, but it couldn’t be refined out easily for use.

That problem’s solution was electricity, generated from coal or especially falling water.  For a while, our nation’s biggest aluminum refining plants resided in the state of Washington, not because they were close to aluminum ore deposits, but because there was a lot of cheap electricity available from the Grand Coulee and other dams on the mighty Columbia River.  It was cheaper to transport the ore long distances for refining than to transport the electricity.

This history reveals a lot about science, history, energy use, resource conservation and economics — areas in which most climate denialists appear to me to lack knowledge and productive experience.

Peter Sinclair more often explains why climate denialists get things wrong.  In this video, the first of what could be a significant series, Sinclair explains how we got to where we are today in energy use and conservation — or energy overuse and lack of conservation, if the Tea Party and Rand Paul get their way.  (Notice the ingots of aluminum shown in the historic film footage.)

This is history which has been largely covered up, partly because so much critical stuff happened in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a time the internet doesn’t cover well.

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