In celebration of energy

Energy is one of the most important contributors to civilisation and high living standards. Without energy we would be nothing, existing as primitive savages facing the vicissitudes of life, in the natural state of man as Hobbes wrote in Leviathan.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Our society has advanced through the more intensive use of energy. First through a greater use of human and animal labour, then carbon, hydrogen and finally nuclear (fission although ultimately fusion).

When, around 750,000 years ago, man discovered the controlled use of fire, he unleashed a revolution, the benefits of which we still enjoy. That was the use of stored sunlight – wood, peat, coke and coal and converting them to energy through a chemical reaction: fire.

The future of human life on our planet depends crucially on the availability of plentiful energy extracted from evermore intensive sources. Extinction of all life on Earth will occur within the next 5000 million years – the estimated remaining life time of our nearest star – unless we harness energy to allow colonies of earth life to be formed on remote planets in other star systems. We will need many ‘Noah’s Arks’ to take the numerous species to these new earths. Solar and wind are not likely to be the energy sources for those adventures.

Not only does the future of human life depend on energy, but the cheap and plentiful supply of energy is also of fundamental importance in reducing human misery and poverty. Recent policies tilted to the Green religion of climate change have reversed the two thousand year advance in the extraction and exploitation of energy to benefit the poor. Energy prices, which have been falling over hundreds of years, are now rising.

A good example of the rapid improvement that energy technology provides is in lighting. As Matt Ridley wrote in his excellent The Rational Optimist:

… ask how long you would have to work to earn an hour of reading light – say, the light of an 18-watt compact fluorescent light bulb burning for an hour. Today it will have cost you less than half a second of your working time if you are on the average wage: half a second of work for an hour of light. In 1950, with a conventional filament lamp and the then wage, you would have had to work for eight seconds to get the same amount of light. Had you been using a kerosene lamp in the 1880s, you would have had to work for about fifteen minutes to get the same amount of light. A tallow candle in the 1800s: over six hours’ work. And to get that much light from a sesame-oil lamp in Babylon in 1750 BC would have cost you more than fifty hours’ of work. From six hours to half a second – a 43,200-fold improvement – for an hour of lighting: that is how much better off you are than your ancestor was in 1800, using the currency that counts, your time. Do you see why my fictional family ate by firelight?

Society has changed as the source and use of energy has changed. Humans were the first source of energy – working for one’s self, in conjunction with peers or using slaves.

The use of animals – oxen, horses, mules etc – provided a major advance in the exploitation of energy. Until the industrial revolution, humans and animals were the main source of energy, although watermills have been found in Ancient Roman sites and were well used for milling and related tasks. The use of watermills expanded significantly during the medieval period (the Domesday book of 1086 records that there was one watermill for every fifty people in southern England).

As animals were generally more efficient than human power, the growth in their use partly accounts for a decline in slavery – they were stronger and easier to feed.

The development of the horse collar in the 10th century led to the replacement of oxen by horses which were able to plough at roughly twice the rate of oxen.  In England, horses were 20% of draught animals in 1086 and 60% by 1574.

The windmill appeared in the 12th century and spread rapidly through the Low Countries were water power was not available.

Peat dug from freshly drained bogs fuelled the brick, ceramic, beer, soap, salt and sugar industries.

Hay, water and wind are ways of drawing upon the sun’s energy. Timber is a way of drawing on a store of the sun’s energy laid down in previous decades. Peat is an older store of sunlight – laid down over millennia. And coal, whose high energy content enabled the British to overtake the Dutch is still older sunlight, mostly captured 300 million years ago. Oil, too, is ancient yet it drove the next advance in society, fundamentally changing the nature of transportation.

The secret of the industrial revolution was shifting from current solar power to stored solar power.

Decarbonisation

The current obsession to ‘decarbonise’ the world neglects the trend to more intensive forms of energy. In fact the most important trend over the past 200 years – without any Government regulations – has been a decreasing relative reliance on carbon-based energy. We know that both carbon and hydrogen (which is the most common element in the universe) release heat when combusted. Indeed, the ratio of hydrogen to carbon in society’s energy supply is a good guide to decarbonisation.

  • Hay and wood comprise mainly carbon – wood, for example, burns 10 carbon atoms for each hydrogen atom.
  • Coal is less carbon intensive than wood – about 2 carbon atoms for each hydrogen atom.
  • Oil is less carbon intensive still – two hydrogen atoms for each carbon atom.

As noted, the process of decarbonisation has occurred without a carbon tax. It has occurred without Government diktat. It has occurred because the newer energy source – say coal and oil – is more intensive and more efficient than the sources they replaced. Jesse Ausubel from Rockefeller University writes

Think of hydrogen and carbon competing for market niche as did horses and automobiles, or audio cassettes and compact discs, except the H/C [hydrogen/carbon] competition extends over 300 years. In 1800 carbon had 90% of the market. In 1935 the elements tied. With business continuing dynamic as usual, hydrogen will garner 90% of the market around 2100.

But the combustion of hydrogen in a chemical reaction with oxygen (eg in a fuel cell) is not the end game. The end game – the ultimate energy source – is the fusion of hydrogen atoms to higher elements (helium, lithium etc)*. Nuclear fission – the splitting of heavy elements such as uranium – is only a half-way house.

In his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, Einstein outlined his famous equation e=mcwhich shows the relationship between energy and matter. This theory – which has been tested in several ways and never disproved – formed the basis of nuclear energy – fission and fusion where small amounts of matters are converted to vast amounts of energy.

In the atomic bomb that ravaged Nagasaki (the Fat Man bomb), 1 gram of matter was lost, creating 21 kilotonnes of TNT-equivalent explosive force. That bomb comprised 6.15 kg of plutonium of which 1 kg was converted to lighter elements the weight being 1 gram less than the original 1 kg.

The secret of nuclear power is to exploit Einstein’s equation in a controlled and safe fashion. This we are increasingly able to demonstrate – today’s fission reactors are orders of magnitude more efficient and safe than earlier generations. They use safer isotopes of uranium.

Yet I am convinced we would be further advanced still if research money had not been diverted to 12th century technologies such as wind. The opportunity cost of the climate change obsession has been reduced spending / research in other promising fields such as nuclear fussion.

The science on energy is clear: the most intensive way to convert matter to energy is via a nuclear reaction. All other forms use chemical reactions which tend to be inefficient and costly.

I have a dream – that within 50 years coal, wood and oil will not be important energy sources. That nuclear fusion will be the principal energy source for humanity and that it will be cheap and plentiful.

* In theory energy could be produced by the collision of matter and anti-matter. If 1 gram of matter and 1 gram of anti-matter collide, 2 grams of matter is converted to energy. This is an important field of research, and is carried out in places such as the Centre for Antimatter-Matter Studies.

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About J

J has an economics background and is a part-time consultant
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37 Responses to In celebration of energy

  1. Andrew

    LOL – 12th century! The filthies keep saying we need to fund research into green energy. A windmill is as good as it gets. Propellers are done to death by the likes of GE – they won’t get better. Gearboxes can’t get 10000% efficient. The sun is limited to 1000w/sq m. It won’t improve for a while.

  2. Oh come on

    Energy is one of the most important contributors to civilisation and high living standards.

    Agree, but I’d go further. It’s easily the most important contributor to civilisation and high living standards.

  3. Robert O.

    An interesting and informative article. It appears that the greens are on the wane, but at the moment what chance have you of getting a nuclear power station operational in Australia? Instead of going nuclear and set-up the necessary industry to manufacture and re-process fuel rods the best that we can do is export yellow cake to a limited number of countries from a limited number of mines. I don’t think that people really understand the need for baseload power in industry and the unlikelihood of getting it from wind turbines and solar panels. In isolated communities these things work for domestic purposes with back-up generators, e.g. King Is.

    The only way to produce baseload power is either by coal, gas, or nuclear and steam turbines, or with dams and hydro power as the Snowy scheme. At the moment you wouldn’t even be able to repeat the Snowy scheme due to environmental regimes that didn’t exist in the 1950′s. Look what happened to the second stage scheme for the Gordon River in Tasmania. Mr. Hawke blocked it due to the politics of Bob Brown and the Greens, and now they are burning oil and gas as well as importing brown coal power from Vic.

    There is a deficit of leadership in our politicians, but in reality they are followers of public opinion rather than real leaders. It’s a pity that they have little understanding of science and engineering, but what can you expect when the majority are lawyers, party staffers or ex-unionists.

  4. wreckage

    The problem with matter/antimatter is the energy needed to create antimatter, IIRC.

  5. thefrollickingmole

    Just a minor reminder the Kalgoorlie area was known as the treeless plain. Not because it started with no trees, but because of the demand for energy and mining supplies.. (pit props etc)

    They ran railroad spurs out 100km into the bush to get more wood, it was essential to everything (including desalination)

    The same area now is a national park, still dry eucalypt dominated (I believe a lot of biodiversity was lost) and shitty, but the wood has grown back precisely because of the more energy intensive products mentioned above…

    How neo-luddite is the green movement??

    http://www.euractiv.com/specialreport-energising-tomorro/half-europe-renewable-energy-com-news-516365

    Practically half of the EU’s renewable energy currently comes from wood and wood waste, according to the EU statistics office Eurostat, but a lack of sustainability criteria for measuring its environmental impact is stoking fears of a hidden carbon debt mountain.
    The new Eurostat numbers were issued in conjunction with the UN’s Year of Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL), which sets ambitious renewables, energy efficiency and universal energy access targets.

    According to the Eurostat statistics, on average, 49% of renewable energy in the EU 27 states came from wood and wood waste in 2010, and most EU states met the majority of their renewable energy obligations this way

    Madness.. pure madness..

  6. caveman

    Your words are wasted everyone knows its Gaia Gaia Gaia.

  7. boy on a bike

    I tried a few months ago to explain how wonderful energy is via a treatise on bicycles and beer. I ran out of puff.

    Consider life before the internal combustion engine. You could transport goods relatively cheaply over long distances via sailing ship or by barges on rivers and canals. But moving goods inland became very difficult and expensive once you left the rivers/canals/ports and were reliant on wagons. I read yesterday that kegs of beer (porter?) were shipped out in the first or second fleet. (As an aside, the beer was heavily hopped in order to preserve the beer – which is also why India Pale Ale has a lot of hops in it – the ale being shipped from the UK to India).

    We don’t use wagons much anymore, so I used the bicycle as an example as we know what they look like and how much human energy it takes to move from A to B, and I thought the greentards might get it if we talked about bicycles.

    If I had a cargo bike, I could happily cycle down to the bottle shop and ride home with a few cartons of beer. I could even carry a 10 gallon keg and a bag of ice for the cold plate. But I doubt I could move it very far, and I’d be screwed by any hill with a gradient of over 2-3%.

    I certainly would never imagine of transporting kegs of beer, or bottled beer, by bike from a brewery in Sydney to say Goulburn. You’d need to drink all the beer en route to power your muscles.

    Which is why every town used to have a brewery. The transport of the day meant it was too expensive to ship beer inland until the coming of the railways. In addition, beer was shipped in kegs because that was more economical than shipping in bottles, and every time you shifted the goods from one mode of transport to another, there was a serious risk of damage. There was bottled beer, but I presume a lot of it was bottled locally.

    And that explains why we used to drink locally brewed beer in pubs. If you don’t believe me, buy a slab from your local bottle shop, stick it on your bike and see if you can ride 200km. (I wonder if this also explains why, in cowboy movies, they always drink whiskey in flea bitten towns in the middle of nowhere? Much easier to move a few bottles of whiskey than slabs or kegs of beer via wagon. And notice that they never drink it with ice, because there wasn’t any.)

    The coming of the car and truck – and the fridge – enabled the transport of bottled beer from far off breweries to your fridge at home. With a minimum of sweat. I can now have bottled beer from Japan getting nice and frosty in my kitchen.

    So when you crack open something cold and frosty, give thanks to petrol, diesel and the internal combustion engine. And good roads. And containers (but that’s a story for another day).

  8. Blogstrop

    It’s easier than ever to identify the enemies of civilisation. They are against all the practical, viable forms of energy, including coal and nuclear, but even hydro.

  9. Tintarella di Luna

    It’s easier than ever to identify the enemies of civilisation. They are against all the practical, viable forms of energy, including coal and nuclear, but even hydro.

    Yes, indeed blogstrop, misanthropes and regressives, that’s what they are. Opposed to the very nature of Man: intelligence, imagination, enterprise,creativity, initiative, free will and purpose.

  10. Noddy

    This could be an enlightening discussion.
    What use is this access to cheap abundant energy if you have a ‘policy of full employment’?
    The ‘people controllers’ will never let it happen as they add more and more taxes to anything that could free mankind from the yoke of productive tyranny.
    So… what is the purpose of production?
    Why continue to use this cheap energy to produce more and more cars?
    It is a waste of energy if they are not required.
    Perhaps the energy can be used in more ‘war destroying initiatives’!

  11. Bruce of Newcastle

    Sadly standard nuclear fusion will not be a feasible source of energy for centuries, unless there is an unanticipated breakthrough. The problem is it requires a very high temperature to ‘go’, and even that almost certainly requires a deuterium-tritium fuel. Tritium is not a nice puppy. It is tritium which is giving Japan conniptions at the moment because of the radioactive ground water extracted from under the Fukushima plant. You can remove radioactive caesium and iodine from contaminated water fairly easily, but you can’t remove tritium since tritiated water IS water.

    On the other hand we have enough uranium and thorium for perhaps 10,000 years of use at current energy consumption, if we use them right. That would give time to leisurely find a way around the nuclear fusion engineering/physical barriers.

  12. Rohan

    Bruce, the pundits Woking on fusion believe they will have it up and running within one to two decades. There’s three main players in the field, each utilising different technologies for initiation and containment. Each pundit has been able to sustain fusion for several minutes. It’s now a race to see who can complete the technical challenges first.

    Yes this is a Wiki article, but follow the links contained within to gain more information.

  13. 2dogs

    Coal is less carbon intensive than wood

    I find this statement hard to believe.

    Coal was originally wood (and other biomass), and the process of being turned to coal involves the molecules turning into molecules more akin to graphite. The best coal, anthracite, is almost pure graphite.

    Graphite contains no hydrogen.

    Do you have a reference?

  14. egg_

    World Energy Day in celebration?
    As in Blair’s “Hour of Power” to counter “Earth Hour” Luddites.

  15. blogstrop

    We have a live one. Noddy, you are an enemy of civilisation.

  16. .

    I suspect Noddy is referring to the fact that less energy density can result in lower energy yields compared to total costs.

  17. Go to your local greenie food hangout, and cross off all of the non-local ingredients. I bet not a single item on the menu would remain intact. Even if they could be sourced by sea, greenies in such an economy couldn’t afford it.

  18. entropy

    2dogs, you have to burn a much, much larger volume of wood to get the same energy you do form a small amount of coal. Think coal as wood minus all the bits that need to use up a large portion of the energy locked up in the wood to, well, burn the wood.

  19. jupes

    Good post Samuel.

    It makes sense to me, however as I understand it the cheapest way to produce electricity in Australia today is with coal.

    Therefore, we should take advantage of that before moving on to nuclear when it becomes cheaper.

  20. Motelier

    The essence of this post is how technology as improve the “price” of energy and that further efforts should be put into getting more “bang for our buck”.

    Properly used science and technology has the ability to further improve our lives.

    I am an automechanic by trade and have seen immense improvements in internal combustion efficiency. The next step to make further gains is to remove the pilot/driver from the equation.

  21. Nuke Gray

    I came up with an idea a few years ago, which was an improvement on the use of solar sails- making hydrogen on the spot from plasma. We should be able to harness the protons and electrons which the sun throws out, by using solar cells to use electromagnetism, and cool these particles down until we can get the protons and electrons to unite again, as hydrogen. This could be a space station in orbit around Mars, for instance. But we could then go further, and build atoms from scratch, if we find ways to manipulate neutrons. Then we could have any element we wanted, and never run out of any resource!

  22. johanna

    Great post.

    We need to keep reminding ourselves that when greenies attack cheap and abundant energy, they are attacking civilisation and economic growth at the root. And they know it.

  23. Pickles

    OPEC worked out in the 70′s that if you control energy you control the world. That’s all this is about.

  24. Oh come on

    I have this conversation with warmenistas about energy. They say we’re all going to have to go back to the caves to save ourselves. I say that at some point in the not too distant future – perhaps even within a young person’s lifetime – energy will be superabundant and basically free. That’s a later point of the trajectory of technological development we’re currently on. When energy is superabundant, the human experience is completely different to what we know today, considering that the primary reason we labour is to acquire energy in some form. The warmenistas think I’m mad. Regular folk find it a rather far-fetched prediction.

    I’m often surprised by the inability of even intelligent people to envisage a future beyond really tiny mobile phones, flying cars and solar and wind powered everything.

  25. Motelier

    OCO
    And the question you have to ask the “intelligent people” is where does the energy come from to power their car, phone, etc.

    The looks on their faces is always amusing.

  26. Combine Dave

    Yes.. but global warming and the corporations and consumerism etc…

    What would the crazies complain about if all people could have access to plenty including plentiful, limitless clean energy?

  27. incoherent rambler

    Michio Kaku, one of our greatest living theoretical physicists, pitches the same argument more eloquently.

    The centrepoint of the Kaku argument is that human advancement comes in leaps and bounds when energy is cheap and available to the masses.

  28. Token

    I came up with an idea a few years ago, which was an improvement on the use of solar sails- making hydrogen on the spot from plasma.

    Great idea.

    Sounds as feasible as they guys who got investors for his perpetual motion machine which would use the kinetic energy to replace fossil fuels.

    Did you have a budget in mind for this Nuke Grey?

  29. manalive

    Solar and wind are not likely to be the energy sources for those adventures ..

    As far as I know there isn’t a factory anywhere making the solar panels or wind turbines which is powered only by solar and/or wind, i.e. the bloody things can’t generate even enough power to reproduce themselves.

  30. 2dogs

    you have to burn a much, much larger volume of wood to get the same energy you do form a small amount of coal.

    Agreed. But that’s not what is being asserted by Samuel here.
    He mentioned coal burns “about 2 carbon atoms for each hydrogen atom” and that wood “burns 10 carbon atoms for each hydrogen atom”. Given how little hydrogen coal has, I find this hard to believe.

    I think he might have gotten those two figures reversed, and even then used the figures for lignite, a low quality coal but with a higher hydrogen content.

  31. Catfeesh?

    research in other promising fields such as nuclear fussion

    That must be whut they do over in NZ….

  32. samuel j

    2dogs, the background on the hydrogen / carbon is here.

  33. egg_

    German Scientists Show Climate Driven By Natural Cycles
    The present “stagnation” of global temperature (Fig. 5) is essentially due to the AMO/PDO: the solar de Vries cycle is presently at its maximum. Around this maximum it changes negligibly. The AMO/PDO is presently beyond its maximum, corresponding to the small decrease of global temperature. Its next minimum will be 2035. The temperature can expected to be then similar to the last AMO/PDO minimum of 1940. Due to the de Vries cycle, the global temperature will drop until 2100 to a value corresponding to the “little ice age” of 1870.

    h/t SDA

  34. Evidently, radiant energy is abundant. However, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests J.P. Morgan and his cronies did not like the idea of free electricity. Vale Tesla.

    As for solar panels and wind turbines not being able to reproduce: Is there any correlation to same-sex marriage? Those that advocate the one, appear to be fixated on advocating the other.

    Maybe the luvvies could build a land of promise in the middle of the Simpson Desert and demonstrate some genuine commitment to their vision to turn the barren into beauty—aaahh, the beauty of the wild. The Simpson would not have to rely on the rains of the north to show it’s really green;banners will be flying instead—green peace, at last. There should be plenty of sun for the day and wind at night to power their little haven, pump up water from the artesian basin below and run a desalination plant or two.

    Another Las Vegas, maybe?

    Such ingenuity and industriousness (hopefully, not dirty a word for the green mob) has done wonders for the economy of Nevada. There will be plenty of night live for the luvvies, too. That is, of course, if the wind turbines are able to work.

  35. Evidently, radiant energy is abundant. However, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests J.P. Morgan and his cronies did not like the idea of free electricity. Vale Tesla.

    As for solar panels and wind turbines not being able to reproduce: Is there any correlation to same-sex marriage? Those that advocate the one, appear to be fixated on advocating the other.

    Maybe the luvvies could build a land of promise in the middle of the Simpson Desert and demonstrate some genuine commitment to their vision to turn the barren into beauty—aaahh, the beauty of the wild. The Simpson would not have to rely on the rains of the north to show it’s really green;banners will be flying instead—green peace, at last. There should be plenty of sun for the day and wind at night to power their little haven, pump up water from the artesian basin below and run a desalination plant or two.

    Another Las Vegas, maybe?

    Such ingenuity and industriousness (hopefully, not dirty a word for the green mob) has done wonders for the economy of Nevada. There will be plenty of night life for the luvvies, too. That is, of course, if the wind turbines are able to work.

  36. The problem with matter/antimatter is the energy needed to create antimatter, IIRC.

    Not just to create it but to safely store it and deliver it in appropriate volumes.

    In E.E. “Doc” Smith’s pulp SF novel Grey Lensman, the heroes build a planet-sized antimatter bomb. The physics is pre-Rutherfordian (the atomic model in use is the plum-pudding model of electrons in a positive matrix) and clearly into the realms of fantasy, of course, but one thing which cuts through very clearly is the huge amount of energy that is being consumed in the conversion of the matter (they use the entire asteroid belt!) to antimatter.

    OTOH his Skylark series did it somewhat more realistically. One of the worlds, Dasor, is 90% ocean – there aren’t many fissionables, and the author didn’t see fusion as a possibility or they would have used seawater, but the fictional Dasorians used tidal power to a huge degree. One of the other races of Smith’s Green system (a term not related to the current political movement BTW) has also perfected beam transmission of power (hopefully in a way that could not be weaponised, although at the time humanity encounters them they are a unified race), so their solar arrays are where they needed to be – out in space, where the energy they supply is round-the-clock as it needs to be. How they dealt with transmission losses to surface is handwaved or ignored, but the idea is there, and in the 1940s when the novel was written, it was fair to assume that continuous scientific progress would deal with those issues.

  37. 2dogs

    Ausubel’s paper is a little misleading.

    He seems to ignore that cellulose itself burns, and looks only at charcoal. I acknowledge the charcoal is mostly carbon, so burning it means burning carbon.

    However, even when cellulose is converted to charcoal, the chemical bond energy from H-C bonds gets changed to C-C bonds, and the hydrogen is given off as water vapour.

    Here, wood burning via charcoal is still a process that produces more H2O per CO2 than coal per Joule, it is just doing it in a H2O stage and then a CO2 stage. Ausubel is only considering the later stage.

    Also, what he is giving as a typical coal molecule isn’t exactly typical.

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