Energy: The Bottomless Well

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Governments exist on a foundation of fear. The more fear they can generate, the bigger they can grow. Fears of terrorists, of WMDS, of bird flu, of Global Warming (or Global Cooling), of nuclear power, etc. etc. etc. Any fear is a good fear for government. Popular support for wars is based on fear.

The Iraq war was originally supported on a basis of fear of nonexistent WMDs. As that fear has receded, new fears are used as supplements. One of the most popular is the fear of "Peak Oil." The idea is that America must fight over the little pool of oil in the Middle East, because that is all the energy in the universe and we have to have it to drive to the mall. One is supposed to picture your great great grandchildren in 2100 driving to malls in Chevrolet Suburbans, fueled by the last dregs of Iraqi oil. They will, of course, but only in historical reenactments (and the Suburbans will probably be powered by "Mr. Fusion" He-3 units).

The truth is that our current energy use is minuscule. The entire world burns about 345 Quads of fossil fuel every year. Known coal reserves contain 200,000 Quads, oil shales 10 million quads, the deuterium in the ocean 10 trillion Quads. (Of course we are no longer allowed to think about using the huge thorium reserves… if you are younger than 30, you probably don’t even know what thorium is). To believe that energy shortages are our biggest problem requires very special blinders.

People have been panicking about "energy crises" since Og the cave man noticed that the supply of fallen branches near the cave was dwindling. There was a panic about "running out of wood"; Watt developed an efficient steam engine and England switched to coal. There was a whale oil shortage in the 1800s; Drake developed oil drilling. There were multiple panics in the 20th Century about running out of oil; we developed nuclear fission, offshore natural gas, efficient solar cells, fuel cells, hybrids, better wind turbines… and then continued to find oil anyway, but when we do need to switch there are multiple technologies available and more on the way.

Energy produces new energy; Watt’s steam engines were used to pump out coal mines to produce more coal. Today’s reactors and drill rigs produce the energy to make mining equipment and develop new power sources.

Huber and Mills make several points in The Bottomless Well. One is that we don’t really want "energy," we want useful order ("negentropy" in physics). Order can only be produced by creating disorder somewhere else, by having energy flow from more concentrated to less concentrated states. If you don’t have a good grip on the concept of entropy, then read this; you can’t talk effectively about "energy" if you don’t know what it is.

This is why talk of "conserving energy instead of producing" is self-contradictory. If we want a clean environment, we have to use energy flowing from a more concentrated source to a more dispersed state to power the separating and recycling of pollutants. Now, this flow could occur in the Sun and be collected by rooftop solar panels, or it could occur in a space-based reactor and be transmitted via microwave and then high-tension line to your house. But life doesn’t exist without that energy flow.

Any successful "energy-conserving" technology in fact leads to the consumption of more energy. The authors point out that more energy now goes into lighting after the invention of energy-conserving bulbs; people make more use of the superior technology and outpace the savings of each individual bulb. The same is true in computers; the energy per logic gate keeps falling, but the overall energy use for computers and Internet keeps rising as the superior technology is more useful and runs more of the time. In fact, the Internet and supporting infrastructure may consume over 10% of our power already. As computers get more useful, more of them will be demanded; any good economist could have predicted that.

The "silicon car" will further increase the efficiency of the internal combustion engine by 20%, prevent traffic accidents, and do nothing whatever to reduce energy use. Since the vehicles will be safer and more useful, more people worldwide will adopt them. The authors don’t point this out, but only the FAA has prevented development of practical personal flying vehicles and flying taxis, which will of course use even more energy than cars (but be less useful for terrorists than today’s 200-ton 747s and 767s).

Another point well made is that only concentrated energy sources allowed Western nations to restore their forests. We get more crops out of smaller areas, where peasant societies just cut down every tree and plow up every acre.

Besides allowing us to leave the energy of sunlight for the natural environment, our "wasteful" energy systems actually let us produce more and more order for human purposes. The book traces the "inefficient" trail of energy that starts out as a pile of coal or uranium and ends up saving someone’s eyesight at the tip of an ophthalmologic surgical laser. Kilowatts have been transmuted into watts, but the watts carry useful order to where it is needed.

The public’s confusion over energy, entropy, and economics has led to a lot of counterproductive, even outright destructive effects. Huber summarizes the effect of the anti-nuclear movement thusly: "400 million more tons of coal have been burned." (Never forget, coal produces over 100 times more radiation per kilowatt-hour than nuclear plants!)

Was this what those who funded the "environmental" organizations wanted? Maybe, but I doubt it was the objective of most environmentalists. The moral is that putting your efforts into depriving other people of the freedom to innovate probably isn’t going to achieve your goal, no matter what your goal is.

There is no reason to fear "Peak Oil," "Peak Coal," "Peak Uranium," "Peak Deuterium," "Peak Antimatter," etc. Free human beings will not run out of energy for billions of years, even if we never learn any more physics in all that time. Our only shortage is of freedom itself. And that is something to fear.

Bill Walker [send him mail] works in HIV and gene therapy research in Rochester, Minnesota.

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