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I think energy is neat

Take a minute to consider your sandwich. The bread, the meat, the cheese. Perhaps some lettuce and tomato. The proper sandwich is also adorned with pickles, mayonnaise, and mustard; perhaps you have an improper sandwich. Think about it like Carl Sagan thinks about pies. Look at each piece of your sandwich and see its path backwards in time. Go further and further back, and you eventually get to the spot where every part needed some sunlight in order to use water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and minerals to make itself. Even the ham or pastrami needed a plant along the way.

And let's ignore the amazing journey of how that energy got here in the first place! That's an entirely different conversation. We are just going to focus on how you are about to ingest a bunch of calories in order to keep your amazing mind operating in tip-top shape, and probably go for a jog later.

How do we know your sandwich contains calories? Because someone dehydrated every part of it and set it on fire. True story. Your body will use chemical reactions to break down your sandwich and, in a manner of speaking, set it on fire. The energy released from burning your sandwich will power your body's natural processes allowing you to continue existing for a bit longer. It's wild to think about. What's even more wild is realizing how that sandwich is, basically, transformed sunlight.

And that's true of everything we use when we need energy of any kind. A long time ago, someone experienced things burning. Probably grasses and maybe some trees, but they burned and that burning was hot. It was unpleasant. Somehow, someone else put together that the unpleasant heat was pretty useful to make things that couldn't be eaten before able to be eaten now.

The burning thing was useful, but it was a long time before we put it all together. The fire is the release of heat and light that was trapped in the material of the wood many years ago. It burns as hot and as bright as it does because we're taking decades worth of light and heat, crammed into a piece of wood, and letting it all out in a hurry. (Thanks, Feynman.)

Same goes for the magical black rocks we started to dig out of the earth. When we set that stuff on fire, holy moly does it get hot! Coal is miraculous! But instead of cramming energy into a cubic centimeter of wood over the course of many years, this coal took millennia to cram all of its energy into a similarly sized cube. Double the amount of energy, but a much longer amount of time to do it. And a little later, we figured out we could burn the liquid version of the stuff (same idea, different organic matter). Again, though, so much energy contained in so little of a portable package (liquid is so handy in that regard), but it took a very long time to make it so concentrated.

Some time ago, when other smart people were playing around with electricity, it was generally decided that the right way to make more of this amazing work-producing stuff was to iterate on technology we already knew: let's burn some concentrated energy packets and transfer them, mechanically, into different energy packets that can run along wires. Seriously, electrification is really amazing stuff. The variety of things we can do with electricity boggles the mind.

Fairly recently, plenty of clever folks decided to attempt to short-cut the process. Instead of waiting for some plant to cram sunlight into sufficiently small spaces, and then waiting for geological forces to really up the space efficiency, why don't we try to get our energy directly from the sun itself? Sure, other clever people are using the weight of water and the fortunate positioning of concrete to transfer potential energy contained in a lake into zappy electricity running through our wires, however not everyone is blessed with a fjord on their property. But the sun, good sir! The sun shines on all.

There's a problem, though. When we burn a log, or a lump of coal, or a gallon of atomized gasoline, we are enjoying the benefit of a lot of sunlight being released right now. Fast. And the amount of space that it takes up is delightfully small. We can fit enough of that energy inside a big suitcase to propel a one-ton piece of metal over three-hundred miles! Try getting that out of a solar panel! Then we take that logic and we point it at everything. Do you want to keep the temperature differential between the inside and outside of your house eighty degrees? Take some of this concentrated, liquid sunshine and burn it in your furnace for about a quarter of the day (or less). You know it's good because it's fast.

But I have come to completely disagree with this idea for all situations. When I contemplate how I use energy, I notice that it's rare that I need quite so much, quite so fast, as what the "maximum" might allow for. It's a rare thing that I'm burning an entire tank of gas by holding the accelerator down to the floor for the duration of the tank. It's a rare day when I'm turning my furnace on and keeping it on for 24 hours in a day.

For those not picking up on the sarcasm, I have never done either of those things, nor has anyone else on the planet. Ever.

One way, though, to cover the gap between how much energy you have available to use at any given moment and how much energy you need right then is to improve the efficiency of the energy you have. Make it do more work, and you suddenly need less energy overall. That allows you to consider keeping less of it around, or to use energy sources that don't pack quite the punch. This isn't appropriate for all situations, just like it's not appropriate to put my car in fifth gear and floor it for three hours. Sometimes, someone needs a lot of energy in a very short amount of time! And the good news is that we have things that can do it. But for everyone else, perhaps we can examine some more interesting ways to use the sunlight we're receiving in more clever ways.

And let's not forget the time factor. It takes about six months for a single tree to produce enough wood to power an American home for a day (30 kWh needed, 6 kg of wood required to make the energy). It takes many, many millions of years for coal to be created, even though you only need about 3 kg of it in our hypothetical situation. After installation, it takes a single solar panel about three weeks to produce that same amount of power. If one considers the efficiency of time, using fossil fuels is silly but for situations when one needs an intense delivery of power in a short amount of time.

So, inspired by a desire to make the energy I have access to do more for me by truly understanding my energy needs, I decided to take a deep dive into the climate control of my home, specifically in winter. I collected a bunch of data and have performed a lot of analysis. It told me that my furnace is over-sized by a bunch, that I could realistically heat my Chicago home built in 1880 using sunlight gathered on the tiny lot I currently own, and that pretty much everyone who told me that it couldn't work is wrong.

Spicy, yes? Let's dig into it!