Energy Futures: Turning the Wheels of Progress

The future and forms of energy continue to change.

by Don Malcolm

Scattered throughout the watersheds in the eastern part of Canada and the United States are countless ancient mill sites. Their locations are marked by the presence of old dams on many of the creeks and rivers. Water backed up from the dam became a millpond from which it was channelled through a millrace to turn a large wooden mill wheel.

The turning axle of the mill wheel served as the conveyor of mechanical power whereby, through a series of belts, pulleys and gears, the energy produced by the weight of water, enticed down an incline by gravity, was transferred throughout the mill.

In many favoured locations where a natural waterfall existed, the building of a dam was not necessary. The mill was built below the waterfall, the millrace ran from the upper level of the stream at the head of the fall, turned the mill wheel, and discharged back into the stream below.

Once captured within the mill, the energy from the mill wheel opened up a wide range of possibilities. Belts turned saws that cut logs into lumber, ran planers, lathes, drills and many other processes limited only by the inventiveness of the millers. In the case of grist mills, the energy turned millstones, grinding corn and other grains into meal and flour.

Villages and towns sprang up around the mills and, along with the church, the mill became a focal point of many communities. In many cases the towns were named after the miller. Place names such as McArthur Mills in Ontario are common throughout the eastern part of North America. Populations were somewhat sedentary, close-knit and, to a great extent, co-operative. The cohesiveness of the villages was such that, until the increased mobility of populations in recent years, developed speech mannerisms were a geographical marker of individual settlements along a particular river. Well into the twentieth century, dialect could still identify a person's home village a few miles up or down the river.

For more than two centuries after the arrival of Europeans in North America, water wheels, windmills, draft animals and human labour served the needs of industry. Historians and artists of the era have portrayed scenes of a lifestyle charmingly serene in its simplicity. But the relative tranquillity of communities and existing systems of the early eighteenth century soon would be swept away by an invention that would become a historical landmark and influence the lives of people worldwide.

Late in the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of dreaming, speculation, trials and finally invention, steam engines were powering factories and mills in North America and Europe. The floodgates of the industrial revolution were opened.

Steam engines powered ocean going ships carrying people and products of industry across the world's oceans.

On land, railways spread throughout the countryside and steam locomotives hauled freight and passengers to and from communities that rapidly grew from village to town to city. And the romance of the train was kindled in the hearts of the people and burns to this day. Fortunate are those who have heard the siren call of a steam whistle in the night, fading away into the distance, sighing, moaning, enticing. Within a very few years railroads crossed Canada and the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Most of the world's people would experience the impact of the steam engine and the industrial revolution.

Invention spawns invention. Steam power set the pace of industrial expansion throughout the nineteenth century. Shortly before the turning to the twentieth century, a new drummer would set the cadence. The discovery and application of electricity would dramatically quicken the march of industrial expansion.

Since its beginning, roughly a century ago, electric power has become so commonplace that those born within the age of electricity would find it difficult to imagine a world without it. Much of the world's population would not remember a time when it was not a part of daily life. To those of us who live in the developed world, electricity is the genie that lives in a wire in our walls waiting to do our bidding at the flick of a switch.

Electricity, as if it had a mind of its own, was able to insinuate itself into the gaps and empty holes of technology where steam engines and other sources of energy would be too cumbersome to fit. In fact, with its vast array of switches, timers, thermostats and computers, electricity controls most of the machinery of modern technology. Sometimes it seems that, through the minds of dreamers who will seek out new ways to employ it, electricity has the intellectual capacity to guard against its own obsolescence.

The twentieth century could well be named the century of electricity. As with the genie in Aladdin's lamp, electricity has brought many benefits. It has been a priceless, life-saving boon to the health-care profession. Countless electrically powered gadgets, tools and applications have taken much of the time-consuming drudgery out of housekeeping and factory work. To list them all would be an undertaking of encyclopedic proportions. The modern automobile could not have progressed to the engineering triumph it is today without the electrical processes involved in its manufacture. Electricity has heated our homes and lit our cities and, probably more than any other factor, has been both the lever and the fulcrum of our impressive technological infrastructure.

But, as with most things so central to our lives, our hunger for more and more energy to satisfy the demands and hopes for an ever-expanding industry has led us down roads we should not have travelled.

We have built nuclear reactors in Canada on the pretence that we needed them to meet our electricity needs when their real purpose was to promote their sales worldwide. We have risked the health and lives of populations at home and abroad and are continuing to do so, even though there is no known way to cope with the radioactive waste they produce.

To produce hydro-electric power we have built massive dams, flooding great river valleys and laying waste thousands of kilometres of forest, fish and animal habitat, farms and potential farm land. Decaying vegetation in the bottom of these reservoirs will, for years to come, release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, to the earth's atmosphere. To supplement hydro-electricity we are burning massive amounts of fossil fuels to drive turbines generating more and more electrical energy. Carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels causes serious ground level pollution as well as adding to the global warming problem. Our modern, but out-dated, transportation system, including the over-used private automobile, is driven almost entirely by fossil fuels.

In recent years increasing numbers of scientists are warning of the possible catastrophic effects of global warming. Rising sea level from melting polar ice caps, on a planet where most of the population and its support systems lie a scant few hundred feet above present sea level, would present a very serious problem.

Representatives from countries worldwide have been meeting in recent years to try to work out an agreement to lessen the risk of global warming. To this date there has been no progress. No-one wants to let go of the industrial tiger's tail.

Looking backward from the beginning of this twenty- first century, beset as we are with uncountable environmental problems of our own making, many of today's citizens may feel a deep sense of nostalgia for a time far away and irrecoverable. The idea of a pace of life set by a turning water wheel seems hopelessly romantic.

We can only go forward in time. But we can go with the knowledge we have learned from our past mistakes. And with imagination, we can correct some of those mistakes. The proposals for alternative energy are many, varied, and exciting. But we must abandon our mind set that only big is good. We can learn to dance lightly on the planet instead of stomping it under our hob-nailed boots.

There are attractive working models of wave and tidal generation of electricity. We are blessed with great oceans on both sides of our continent. We have an abundance of waves and tides. Wind and solar generation is spreading throughout the world. It would be a rare day indeed if the sun didn't shine or the wind didn't blow somewhere on the continent. Every house, every high-rise office or apartment building, every factory could be equipped to maximum capacity with solar panels. Building owners could be charged for electricity coming in from the grid and credited for surplus going out. There are countless locations where wind farms could be established.

Streams and rivers could be harnessed with floating generators on hinged mountings to ensure operation in fluctuating water levels. A dam would not be necessary. There would be no restriction of water flow or the passage of fish.

City public transportation systems could be converted to electric power. Fares should be abolished to encourage their use. Buses could, perhaps, be smaller and run more frequently. Congestion and pollution caused by automobiles would be greatly reduced. Cities could be freed from the great financial burden caused by trying to accommodate, unnecessarily, too many private cars. Advertising could make bus riding glamorous; if it can make people pay a hundred and eighty dollars for brand name running shoes made in a third world country at a cost of fifty cents for material and five cents for labour, or forty thousand dollars for four- wheel-drive vehicles that never get off paved roads, surely it could make public transportation attractive. We may all be Saturday night anarchists but, apparently, we love to be led.

Perhaps railroads could be converted to a diesel-assisted electric system with the right-of-way being a national power grid collecting input from micro-power systems across the country. Each car in the train could be equipped with a tag axle, the purpose of which would be to generate electricity to the grid and assist in braking on the down-hill sections of the railway. From the continental divide at the BC/Alberta border, it's down-hill to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Perhaps electrical/mechanical engineers would point out that the tag axle proposal is unworkable, that the amount of energy produced would not overcome the drag. But they could, and probably will, find a way to make it work.

Humans are remarkable. We can do anything that we can imagine. We have sent our citizens to the moon and brought them home again. We have built castles in the air where they can live for a while. We can repair the damage we have done to our planet. But we must begin.



[From WS February/March 2001]

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