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First Law of Thermodynamics

Newton is spinning in his grave, an endless rotating work (W) produced by the transfer of heat Q in the environment caused by the internal change of operations in the U.S exploitation of energy resources; ΔU — a joke written by Kyra Roesle

In terms of this physical plane, there are no free lunches. Everything costs something; time, money, energy. Often spending one of these things results in the production of another thing to spend. Work either makes or finds sustenance, which in turn provides the very life energy required to work to find sustenance. It is a cyclical process, one known under many names: the circle of life, the life cycle, the tree of life. 

It is also a balanced process.This balance can be described in fixed terms–the first law of thermodynamics. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. There is a finite amount present in this universe. 

However, energy can be exchanged through changes and work is made possible by these changes. Gas can be converted to heat, which provides a harvestable work source, like in the production of steam in a combustion engine to make mechanics move. This can appear as a creation of energy from some energy-less source–like putting your keys in a car and it turning on, somewhat magically, and taking you places with barely any energy being used yourself.

But never be fooled. There is always a cost. In the case of driving your car, the energy cost is well known. When it comes to the energy cost of other things, things not in our immediate purview, the true price-tags remain largely unknown.

When my partner, John Adair, and I left for Boardman, Oregon, we hoped to research the closing of the last coal mine in Oregon. Coal has been a cheap, abundant source of harvestable energy for decades. You mine coal, burn coal, make heat, heat makes steam, steam makes generators spin and thus tremendous amounts of electricity. 

[Part of the Boardman Oregon’s windfarm.]

The justification for the egregious human rights and environmental issues, coal is a cheap, reliable energy source. Before its shutdown in October 2020, Portland General Electric’s Boardman plant boasted 10-15% of PGE’s utility energy, providing 500,000 homes with power.

Before the plant was taken offline, it was also a provider of stable jobs in Eastern Oregon. It was also a source for 67 relatively well-paid employment opportunities–not to mention other jobs created in the monitoring, transporting, and harvesting positions. 

We wanted to talk with those who had worked in and around the plant, and get their feelings on the matter. I will not claim innocence in this adventure. We believed that there would be no shortage of harsh feelings about the closing of the plant. Angry characters. Unheard unemployed. Flaring tempers.

When arriving in the dingy motel that sat in the nearby town of New Arlington, we already started to realize that our predictions of Boardman were rife with assumptions. Boardman was far from angry, they were.. neutral. Locals could not care less. Librarians with family members who had spent their lives working the plant had no feelings one way or another. Person after person made the picture crystal clear; when it came to the Boardman plant closing, the town just shrugged.

I’ve seen major, carbon-producing industries fall. Gas, coal, oil – all the same. I have come to expect outrage, rioting, and sometimes violence. When we did not find this, we first checked our internal biases, and then asked the question; “Well, why not? Where is all the displaced energy?”

The energy was not created nor destroyed. It was delicately transferred. Displaced. To somewhere much worse.

Kyra Roesle
John Adair

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