Energy: Defining the Problem
This is the first of several articles on the subject of energy, what the future looks like, and most of all about our responsibilities. Unlike most folks looking at the problem I am not going to assume that we are all doomed. The problems around energy are all solvable and the future for everyone is bright, not dim.
In the series I will recap some points well-made in the seventies by the book from which the quote below is taken, my apologies to Dr. Pournelle if I get some of this wrong, my memory is fuzzy and I can’t find a copy anymore.
“Like it or not we live in a high energy society”
–Jerry Pournelle, “A Step Further Out”
I have to agree. Where energy is cheap and plentiful life is good, there’s leisure, there’s education, and there’s hope for the future. Where Energy is in short supply life is generally toilsome, brutal, and many times short; there’s no time for fun, there’s no time for education.
This picture demonstrates it well enough, look on the map of the night world from JPL, note where the darkness lies on the face of the earth and note where there is light. In the energy-plentiful areas people are generally better off than those in the dark. Education levels are higher, lifestyles are better, healthcare more prevalent, life-expectancy longer.
Defining the problem
In the US we are dependent on hydrocarbon based energy generation. We’ve used the easily gained hydrocarbons in North America, and depend on other countries for oil, which is not a good strategic or geopolitical situation to be in.
Our huge demand keeps oil at a price that’s high, and for a successful future Energy needs to be not only plentiful, but cheap and clean. It needs to be so plentiful and cheap that people begin wondering if they should meter it anymore.
We are living the good life, and other people’s lives are sucking. That doesn’t give them a moral lien against us, but everybody would feel better if everyone in the world had our level of access to energy. Arguably a lot of the problems that seem so urgent at present would go away if that were the case.
Forget about global warming for a moment, I don’t think man as the cause has been proven yet, and the case is not getting better. Look instead at the bad effects of burning the hydrocarbon fuels we use now to generate energy.
- In 1978 coal claimed 40 to 50 thousand lives per year to produce worldwide. The oil boom, concern for the environment, and other causes led to the decline of mining coal, but now with demand rising it’s back in vogue and mining death-tolls are on the rise again. You know that deaths are increasing again when both Radio Free Asia, and their political opponents both agree to it. This table from HSE shows the increase of deaths from pneumoconiosis in the UK, where coal mining has been in decline for several years and just recently ramped up.
- Most fuel hydrocarbons release carcinogens; if you are one of those who worries about second hand cigarette smoke, you should be much more concerned about your neighbor’s car, lawnmower, chainsaw, and barbecue.
- The death toll from mining is awful, so for those of you worried about nuclear power you should be more worried about coal power generation. Ash and burn by-products release more radioactivity into the air & environment daily than all of the nuke plants in the world have released since startup. You can count Chernobyl in the equation, and the output of coal power weekly would still outstrip it.
There are numerous other things about hydrocarbon fuel that are bad: oil slicks, coal slag pits, refinery fires, gas tanker explosions, car fires, transporting it long distances, the list can go on forever but you get the idea.
We are dependent on high energy, as the aftermath of Katrina amply demonstrated to everyone, if you turn off power to any major metro area for a couple of days rioting, looting, mayhem, and medieval mentalities all come forth.
Since we are a high energy society, and the competition for energy sources has ramped up, we need a cheaper, cleaner, more plentiful source. That’s the problem, and in future articles in Energy we will go into the details, the means, and what’s required for various solutions.