Tag Archives: electricity

One Second After – William R. Forstchen

She’d always talk about how great Gandhi was. I’d tell her the only reason Gandhi survived after his first protest was that he was dealing with the Brits. If Stalin had been running India, he’d been dead in a second, his name forgotten.

Have you wondered what will happen if electricity suddenly stops coming? This book replies exactly at that questions, under a fictional story following an ex-military history professor, in a small town in the mountains in the United States.

Loss of electricity (not a blackout, in a blackout you kind of expect electricity to return) can have several reasons. In this book, there is an electromagnetic pulse that fries the grid and everything electric (circuitry). This threat is actually possible, and the guy in the US Army looking at this problem (asymmetrical threats) was an advisor for the book.

In case electricity stops coming, the very fiber of society disintegrates: no communications (no phones, television, internet, newspapers), no commerce (no card readers, only cash for a while, then only barter), no food (no refrigeration, no trucks to bring food to supermarkets, no machinery to harvest, no trucks to bring food from silos to animal farms), government loses the monopoly of violence (how can you announce the police of a robbery, crime, rape, if communications are down?), no medicines for the needy (diabetics and others). Also, no hygiene products for women.

Without electricity

Electricity allows to increase tremendously the efficiency of agriculture and food production. Therefore, as soon as it disappears, human population reduces to the efficiency of food production before electricity. This means mass starvation, which the book painfully describes.

The story takes place in the United States, in a mountain town. Hence, some features are present, which might be specific to the country, such as : numerous people have guns that can hunt with and many citizens have military experience. This comes as an advantage, because, as society breaks, individuals usually kept in check by police, re-surge as organized bands, taking food by force and killing. Police can’t quickly intervene, without the instant communications.  Also, many officers and hospital staff might be wanting to return home, at their loved ones, until some form of community protection is realized.

William R. Forstchen is asking many interesting, deep questions about the vulnerabilities of our society. The literary value of the book is quite low, writing is ok, fluid, but not fantastic; however, the strength of the book is coming from the really good questions that it asks. This is kind of hard fiction, from politically conservative perspective.

There are many low chance, high threat events that could destroy civilization. Supervolcanoes, meteorites, robots, plagues, but it is not a lot you can do if a meteorite comes. On the other hand, just blowing a nuclear bomb at high-altitude, for example 50 km up over a continent, the US Army colonel specialized in this issue argues, is enough to destroy a country. In the book, they don’t even know who launched the nuclear bomb. All that they know was that the launch was from a freighter out in the sea and they speculate that maybe a terrorist group or a country not friendly to US or even a large power that covered their tracks really well.

A report from nine scientists was published, unluckily in the day of the 9/11 attacks and, seemingly, a US Congress inquiry was made over this, but overridden by the terrorists attacks.

Overall, a must-read book for the interesting questions it asks.


[Picture from http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Strommast-Current-Pylon-Steel-High-Voltage-Sunset-520008%5D

A few words about energy and electricity – differences

Energy is the basis for modern human civilization, because of the significant increase in productivity it brings. It is a vital part for most, if not all, of human activities: agriculture, communications, trade, manufacturing, mining, education, health etc. Consequently, there is a correlation between energy consumption and wealth (Webber, 2013).

According to the first law of thermodynamics, which says that energy of an isolated system is constant, humans are basically transforming energy that is already in the system into energy more convenient to use. For example, a windmill transformed wind energy into mechanical energy used to mill grain. Replacing human muscle with wind energy increased enormously the efficiency of the process. Repeating this idea for thousand and thousand of processes led to the highly efficient and also highly energy-transformative economy we have today.

For dawns of civilization the main energy source used by humans was wood, later followed by coal and now we live in an era dominated by oil.

There are many forms of energy – kinetic (motion), thermal, chemical, nuclear, radiant (light), gravitational, etc – electricity is just a form of energy, used according to our needs. Electrical conversion is basically a transformation of various energies already existing in the system. For example, thermal energy (heat – which is basically kinetic energy at molecular level) from burning coal; or kinetic energy from wind motion; or gravitational energy from waterfalls is converted into electrical energy.

Energy sources have several classifications. For example, the International Energy Agency manual for energy statisticians (IEA, 2005), which shares harmonized definitions, units and methodology with Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, considers that energy sources (called “commodities”) can produce primary electricity through direct use of natural resources, such as hydro, wind, solar, tide and wave power or they can produce secondary electricity, using thermal energy as intermediate step, such as from nuclear fission of nuclear fuels, geothermal heat and solar thermal heat, or by burning coal, wood, natural gas, oil, etc.

US Energy Information Administration (EIA, 2015) makes the distinction between primary energy sources and secondary energy sources. Primary energy sources are those forms of energy, such as oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, biomass, wind, that are used to convert energy into energy carriers. Energy carriers, called secondary energy sources, such as electricity and hydrogen, transport energy, which is later converted into other forms of energy that are useful for humans. Electricity is used because it is easy to transport and can be quickly transformed in other forms of energy we need (kinetic, e.g. for coffee maker, thermal, e.g. for light bulbs).

Other several classifications, more or less scientific are used. Conventional energy is used mainly to nominate energy production from fossil fuels, while alternative energy is basically any source other than fossil fuels. Renewable energy is energy derived from processes with a replenishment rate higher than consumption. Eurostat, however, considers biofuels and municipal waste as renewables. Green energy is any form of energy with small environmental impact at its end-use (IEA, 2015; Webber, 2013). However, all energy sources have an environmental impact (Webber, 2014, Sheldon 2014, Mayfield, 2015).

Energy is not the same as power, although similar in meaning. Energy is power over time. For example, a refrigerator has a power of 225 Watts, and in an hour it uses 225 Wh (energy.gov, 2015), which is a measure of energy.

From a long term energy strategy standpoint, the second law of thermodynamics, which says that entropy always increases or remains the same in a close system, is relevant. This means that Earth-based highly-ordered forms of energy, such as fossil fuels, will always have conversion loses, because Earth is a closed system (Sheldon, 2013; Webber, 2013). For example, overall efficiency for converting primary energy to light using a light bulb is just 1.6% (Tester et al, 2005, p.58). However sun radiance can be used at will, because Earth is not a closed system regarding this type of energy (Webber, 2013; Sheldon, 2013).

In other words, there is a lot of space for progress in energy production.