The Story of Energy (for Grown-ups)

21 Aug 2012Gary Kendall

Among the myriad challenges facing the human species in the early years of this century there is one that shows up on every political and business agenda from Pretoria to Paris, Lusaka to London, and Windhoek to Washington: how to sustain economic growth. So dominant is this discourse that those who dare to question it can be readily dismissed as lunatics, so far outside the mainstream as to appear out of touch with reality. Can’t they see? We need to create jobs

Yet deep down we all know that our home planet – and the non-renewable resources upon which our economies are based – is finite, meaning that nothing can grow indefinitely without violating immutable laws of nature. This is a scary thought. So, to insulate our preferred mental models of the world from uncomfortable physical truths, we invent oxymoronic terms like “sustainable growth” that evade all attempts to assign a coherent definition. Most worryingly, we render ourselves unable to recognise and confront a profound blind spot: the pivotal role that energy plays in the human project.

To comprehend why we are where we are, and what it means for our future, we must first appreciate that not a cent of economic activity happens without energy being transformed from one form into another. Through trillions of daily conversion processes – some of which happen inside our bodies as we consume food which also required energy to produce – we benefit from a range of useful services such as heating, cooling, mobility, communications, etc. In so doing, laws of physics dictate that we must throw some energy away as waste heat; we can (and should aim to) improve the efficiency of our conversion steps, but we can never break even.

A deeper understanding of our predicament is revealed in the workings of our pre-industrial world. Then, as today, our economic system was based entirely on the movement of people and things. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, all of that movement was driven by solar energy, whether it was harvested as food for people, feed for draught animals – then converted into motion via muscles – or wind caught in the sails of ships and windmills, or rivers turning watermills. For simplicity, we can think of this kinetic energy sub-system as the “Wheel”. It was constrained by our “solar income”, which is the quantity of incident sunlight we could capture (in a relatively short timeframe) and usefully deploy.

Sure, we had for many centuries also been making good use of stored sunlight. By burning wood, peat and coal (the last of these in miniscule quantities by today’s standards), we were able to use the liberated heat to cook our food, warm our homes, and drive an impressive host of manufacturing processes. We can call this thermal energy sub-system “Fire”, and it ran on the “hydrocarbon battery” – sunlight captured by plant and animal life over millions of years before being locked away in fossil fuel deposits – to which we increasingly turned as our supplies of firewood became exhausted. But, just as today, our ability to bring the hydrocarbon battery into service was constrained by the rate at which we could move these combustible fuels from where they were found to where they were needed.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of an event that altered the course of human history profoundly. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen’s first steam engine became operational in the English Midlands town of Dudley. By converting heat into motion, it united humanity’s two most important discoveries: Fire and the Wheel. From that moment on, our scope for mobility – in the first instance, to shift water from a flooded coal mine – was no longer bound by the limits of solar income, by human and animal muscle or sailing ships.

Once we’d hooked ourselves up to the hydrocarbon battery, we began to mechanise our world. Fewer draught animals were required, which liberated not only the paddocks on which they were kept, but also the large tracts of arable land which fed them. In concert with advances in agriculture, fewer farmhands were able to produce greater quantities of food, which in turn boosted population growth. More of us were free to swap rural for urban landscapes that were melting pots of knowledge-sharing and innovation, fostering further advances in science and medicine that allowed us to lead longer, more productive – and more consumptive – lives. Later, steam ships and locomotives allowed us to move more things (including food) faster over greater distances, enabling ever higher levels of consumption. For the better part of three centuries, we hardly looked back as we ascended this upward spiral, propelled by ancient solar energy released from fossil fuels.

A crucial enhancement of the Fire/Wheel axis arrived towards the end of the 19th Century with the invention of the automobile. If fossil fuels are the Earth’s hydrocarbon battery, then crude oil is their ultimate expression: its liquid state provides unmatched energy density and ease of transport, making oil the reference fuel for moving people and things, far superior to coal and natural gas. Its role in underpinning our economic system cannot be overstated and it seems impossible to dislodge. No wonder we are prepared to go to war over the stuff – we are fighting for nothing less than our ability to sustain economic growth as we know it.

A ready supply of cheap liquid transport fuels subsequently enabled us to do all sorts of clever things, such as create globalised supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems, and we congratulate ourselves for the perceived efficiency gains that we created. The trouble is it all unravels spectacularly when fuel becomes expensive or scarce, even fleetingly. Keen to avoid cold-turkey convulsions on a societal scale, governments intervene by any means necessary and order is maintained. This is precisely how South Africa ended up with the world’s single largest point source of CO2 emissions, thanks to its apartheid-era coal liquefaction programme, a response to constricted oil supplies.

All the most prized attributes of advanced economies – proud beacons of human progress to which many developing nations aspire – are based upon the marriage of Fire and the Wheel. That is, we achieve and maintain our pinnacle of civilisation by relentlessly digging fossil fuels out of the ground and setting them on fire in order to move people and things from place to place in motor vehicles. High-tech, indeed! But lurking in the dark recesses of our minds is the realisation that consuming any resource faster than its rate of formation is, by definition, unsustainable. Fully aware that our hydrocarbon battery is draining fast and will not be re-charged in the conceivable future, that using it has a deleterious effect on the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth, and that meanwhile the economic system through which we aim to deliver societal needs is utterly dependent on it, what are we to do? We surely can’t return to a pre-industrial existence where most people struggled on the very edge of survival. At least, we won’t take this lying down.

There is a glimmer of hope around which to galvanise our collective imagination. About the time of the automotive revolution, another energy technology was born that also came to shape modern life: electricity. Just as the steam engine created a pathway for turning heat into motion, so electricity can reverse the process. Via electrons, we can take solar income – either directly by capturing sunlight or indirectly by harnessing wind – and transform it into every imaginable energy service of benefit to society, including the mobility which underpins all economic activity. Crucially, modern electrical devices – and transportation modes in particular – just happen to be supremely efficient, meaning that we can enjoy more services with less energy expenditure. And electricity is unique among energy carriers because it can also convey information. This introduces the prospect of discarding the current “dumb” energy system and replacing it with one that is “smart”. Since all of the energy arrives for free and its source will never expire as long as our solar system persists (if it doesn’t, human concerns will be a thing of the past!), what’s not to like?

We are exhibiting all the symptoms of addiction, including compulsive behaviour and denial in the face of mounting evidence that we have a serious problem. We even resort to theft in order to feed our increasingly expensive habit, either from weaker nations or communities, or from generations as yet unborn. As civilised adults we need to confront and treat this addiction, unhook ourselves from the hydrocarbon battery, creating in its place a new economic paradigm that provides societal needs equitably within solar income constraints. Does this mean the end of growth, at least as the term is currently understood? That is inevitable anyway; we cannot negotiate with hard biophysical limits. The best we can hope for is what economists might call a “soft landing”. The 21st Century project – both hugely challenging and incredibly exciting – is to create the ultimate just-in-time delivery system, powered by energy that arrives every day from the sun, not by setting fire to millions of years of ancient sunlight in the blink of an eye. All other species on Earth manage just fine like this. For now, we are the 0.0001% that attempt to live by rules of our own making and it is silly to imagine that we can continue as we are with impunity.

This article first appeared on the Ethical Living website.

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