"Oil, Energy, and Capitalism," speech by Barry Commoner

This is the problem identified and explained by Barry Commoner:

The vacuum cleaner should be plugged into the electric outlet, but the hot water heater should be plugged into the waste heat outlet. But that's not the way things are arranged.

Incidentally, let me tell you now what the thermodynamic efficiency of producing hot water is. What that means is—what's the value of energy? Work. So, if we want to ask what's the thermodynamic efficiency, how much work are you using relative to the amount that you need to use, the minimum amount you need to use, to accomplish a work-requiring task. Let's take the task of producing hot water in your home. That takes work, you've got to get it done. Well, this computation's been done, very recently, and it turns out that the thermodynamic efficiency is about two percent. Just about two percent. We are using fifty times more work to heat our hot water in the United States than we need to. And the reason is that we haven't got good arrangements between the sources of power and the uses of power.

Wasting energy with inefficient transport

Well, I can give you many more examples. The thermodynamic efficiency of our transport system is 10 percent. And the reason is that we put little engines in vehicles and since Mr. Carnot tells us that only a small part of the energy in an engine can be converted to motion, the rest goes off as heat. And when you drive down the street, you are putting most of the energy in the gasoline into heating the air. Meanwhile, you're driving past somebody's home who would love to have that heat to warm up their home. That seems simple. And it can be done.

The way you do it is by having this split between mechanical motion and heat. A [power plant] is not something that flits about, but sits still. And then you can recapture the heat, and what you do is take the electricity and use it to run a train. So, mass transit, using electric trains, would allow us to make proper thermodynamic use of the energy and would be much more efficient.

Well, let's pursue this a little further. A beautifully thermodynamic efficient way of moving about the city is an electrified trolley. Do you have any trolleys in Boston? No. We don't have any in St. Louis, and we have to ask why.

Did they get sick and die? No, they were killed. They were killed by a corporation made up of General Motors, Firestone Rubber Company, and the Standard Oil Company of California. A man named Bradford Snell, a couple of years ago did a beautiful analysis of the destruction of the trolley systems of the United States—the best thermodynamically efficient way to have urban transport.

It was done by this company, it was called I think the American Transit Company. What they did was go into a city, they did in St. Louis, buy up the trolley company, tear down the wires, junk the trolleys, and buy buses, and Firestone tires, and Standard Oil gasoline. Then this company, apparently not really interested in running transportation, sold the company to somebody who wanted to run buses and took their money and went to another city, bought up another trolley line and destroyed the trolleys and the electric wires.

They were brought into court in the Chicago Federal District and fined $5,000. The vice-president of the company, who had single-handedly, apparently, participated in the destruction of a hundred million dollar trolley system in Los Angeles, was fined $1.

Now I think it's clear we've gone from thermodynamics to power plants to Carnot to what? To the understanding that the reason why we haven't got a thermodynamically efficient urban transport system is that the profit arrangements are such that it is entirely expected of a company that wants to sell buses to destroy its competition so that it can make a better profit.

Oil, energy and capitalism: An unpublished talk by Barry Commoner | Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

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  • Tom Usher

    About Tom Usher

    Employment: 2008 - present, website developer and writer. 2015 - present, insurance broker. Education: Arizona State University, Bachelor of Science in Political Science. City University of Seattle, graduate studies in Public Administration. Volunteerism: 2007 - present, president of the Real Liberal Christian Church and Christian Commons Project.
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