The watts and volts of making easy money

When I was growing up, nobody told me the only way to get rich is to make things that people needed. Or, better yet, hire other people to make them. Were my parents too busy to point this out? How did my teachers not bring this to my attention? Did they think my knowing the difference between the pharynx and the larynx and how oxbow lakes are formed would one day bring me unimaginable wealth?

I met an old school friend not long ago. Hadn’t seen him in decades. He was driving the latest BMW and dressed in a way that made me look homeless. I asked what he did for a living.

“I make pipes,” he said. I laughed. “Funny, that,” I said. “I was thinking of making a pipe just before I came here.” His eyes narrowed.

“Polyvinyl chloride pipes,” he said, sliding his iPhone beyond my reach. After asking the waiter for the wine list, something I have never done in my life, he went on to explain that PVC is the world’s third most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer.

“It comes in two basic forms,” he said, gravely. “Rigid and flexible.” I tried laughing again but it came out more like a death rattle. “Sort of like women?” I said hopefully.

He sniffed once and tapped a single freshly manicured fingernail on his car remote. Evidently suspecting that I had suffered some sort of mental trauma since school, he spent the rest of lunch slowly explaining the astounding properties of PVC piping. I began drinking heavily, wondering all the while if I could murder him right there and get away with it on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Or feign a cutlery malfunction and stab myself in the face. He would have to stop talking then. No, that wouldn’t work. He would insist on getting into the ambulance with me and he’d lean into my face with his disgusting wine breath and ask if I knew that PVC is insoluble in alcohol but slightly soluble in tetrahydrofuran.

“Not many people know that,” he would say, while the salad fork wobbled in my eye socket.

So, yeah. This guy obviously got the memo. Make stuff that people need. It doesn’t matter if it’s spigot joints, ball bearings or toilet seats. You can get very rich like that. You can also develop a superpower – the ability to bore people to death.

My superpower is to put words together in the hope they evince some sort of emotion. Unlike the construction of bridges and shopping malls, the construction of sentences and paragraphs is not necessary for people to survive. At best, it’s a nice-to-have.

Then, a few days ago, I read something that could change my life. Thanks to Cyril Ramaphosa getting Gwede Mantashe into a chokehold and forcing him to see the light, so to speak, a rare opportunity has arisen for late starters like me to make electricity and sell it to the government. I was very excited and called my old mate Ted right away. He didn’t think much of the idea but when I told him I had seven cases of beer, he was outside my house within minutes.

He arrived wearing a wetsuit, gumboots and yellow dishwashing gloves, explaining that if we were going to be making electricity, we would need to be well-grounded. He gave me the lazy eye and said I clearly wasn’t well-grounded and hadn’t been for a very long time.

“Right,” I said, handing him a six-pack and opening one for myself. “What generates electricity?”

Ted thought for two seconds. “Cats and balloons,” he shouted. I explained that he was thinking of static electricity.

“Do you,” I said, “have any idea how many cats and balloons we’d go through just to make one cupful of electricity?” Ted said South Africa had a massive surplus of cats and balloons and it was unlikely we’d run out, which wasn’t the point. He also said electricity doesn’t come in cupfuls and, on closer reflection and a second six-pack, I conceded that he might be right although he couldn’t say what it did come in so I won on a technicality.

“Solar is where it’s at,” I said. After calculating our finances, we agreed to start out with one panel. Then we argued about whose house we would put it on and who would keep it clean and that was the end of that idea.

A wind farm seemed the next best option. Since neither of us owned a farm, we felt that one smallish turbine would be sufficient. I’d seen dozens of them on a recent trip to Jeffreys Bay and it made sense to dig one up, put it on my roof racks and bring it home. Getting caught wasn’t an issue since theft is encouraged in the Eastern Cape. Maybe it only applies to municipalities.

After calculations done on the back of Ted’s hand, we reckoned we’d need to produce five thousand gigawatts a day, or maybe an hour, to make it worth the effort. And we’d need the government to pay at least R500 a megawatt or portion thereof. But even with a free microwatt thrown in for every fifty uberwatts, or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s with every kilowatt, it seemed unlikely our embattled Treasury could handle that kind of outlay. The idea was scrapped when we fought about who would be responsible for maintenance. South Africans hate doing maintenance. We can’t see the point. It’s a genetic flaw.

“How about,” I said, “if we bought, say, a million of those plastic windmills that children play with?” Ted stroked his beard, even though he doesn’t have one, and looked thoughtful. After a few minutes, I smacked him across the head and woke him up.

“Whirligigs!” he shouted, knocking his beer over. Sure, why not. Link them together with fibre optic cables and feed it straight into the government’s gaping maw. Half a day of digging up the neighbourhood and we’d have enough macrowatts to keep us in beer for the rest of the year.

The more we drank the less viable it seemed. Too many whirligigs. Too much effort.

“How do they make electricity at our power stations?” said Ted. Just then load-shedding kicked in. We sat in the dark for two hours, drinking quickly and silently, as if the absence of light somehow rendered our brains inactive. When the power returned, we hit on it at the same time. “Fossils!” We’d heard a lot about fossil fuel but had no idea where to get the fossils from. Ted seemed to think they were kept in caves, like Sterkfontein, but it sounded too far away. And anyway, the spine of a brontosaurus would never fit on my car.

“What about coal?” All we needed to do was keep fifty or so braais going around the clock and connect them to a bunch of car batteries. This was by far our best idea but it fell apart when we calculated out how much meat and alcohol we would have to buy. Our livers would liquify and our arteries would turn into carbon rods long before we could make enough to retire as wealthy men.

“How about gas?” said Ted, from the foetal position, and proceeded to fart the opening bars of the national anthem.

At this point, I ran out of renewable energy and had a spontaneous blackout.