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.
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=mc2 which 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.