the Energy Conundrum

Seems appropriate to tackle this one at the moment, when the nut-case Gaddafi appears to be bashing seven bells out of his people, the energy situation could take a turn for the worse.

It’s not so much the uncertainty over the Arab world, which supplies most of the oil used worldwide, though not as much as it used to. It’s the fact that we’ve probably all got to have to start getting used to using a lot less of it. The uncertainty in the Arab world may bring this on sooner, but only by a few years.

The trouble is that we’ve been mining the power of ancient sunlight for many years now, and its let us get ahead of ourselves a bit. It’s also come in a damned convenient form, which with a bit of refinement and chemical wizardry enables us to get a very compact store of energy.

For a lot of energy applications the compact storage doesn’t matter – I’m not so concerned if my electricity comes from great hulking lumps of coal or from tiny amounts of nuclear fuel. But when it comes to fuelling my car, I have got awfully used to being able to load enough fuel good for about 400 miles in about five minutes.

In some ways even if we didn’t mine oil we’d have to invent it – it’s a really convenient store of energy, and indeed you can make oil from wood. So we can cancel all that hoo-hah about peak oil happening in 2009 then, and kick back and enjoy the ride, and another few hundred years of continuous growth?

Not so fast. There probably is a place for synthetic oil even if we don’t get it from the ground, because of a hundred years of experience in handling it in transportation applications. Although in Hollywood movies car crashes result in stupendous fireballs, we have got good enough at designing fuel storage that it doesn’t happen that way so often.

Obviously we may want to use electricity in future, and there is an awful lot ot be said for electrically powered traction in land vehicles – you get to lose the need to gear-shift to match the load to the narrow power band of an internal combustion engine. However, storing electricity is still a right mess, and high energy density batteries tend to use exotic materials, compared to the low-tech of a petrol tank.

People often cite human ingenuity as being ready to solve all our energy problems, so let’s assume we have decent, safe compact energy storage, even when it is no longer economically viable to mine oil to use as an energy source. We might still use it as a feedstock for plastics etc, but say that the cost of oil per unit energy rises above the value of the industrial output it can facilitate.

The trouble with human ingenuity it that it has no answer for the fundamental question

where is the energy going to come from?

and that is a real downer. Ingenuity will never find a solution to the First law of Thermodynamics. The last time humanity lived within the scope of the energy it could sustainably harvest from the sun was about 1900. Okay, so we can probably catch a hell of a lot more than they did then, but as David MacKay analysed in Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air renewables just ain’t gonna cut it for the UK, leastways not if we want to eat, or pretty much want to see any of this green and pleasant land rather than covering it with solar panels and industrial clobber.

One area we really could get to use some of our much vaunted human ingenuity is to apply ourselves to wasting less energy. That divdes into two areas – cutting down frivolity and improving efficiency. There isn’t any real excuse for air travel city breaks and domestic air conditioning (in the UK) and the sooner that sort of thing is priced out of the reach of the average Brit the better in my view, it’s the market doing the job it’s designed to do, not a revolting attack on the common man as it is sometimes portrayed. You’re entitled to air, not air travel…

According to David MacKay, the average annual energy usage of someone in the UK is 125kWh/d, broken up into 40kWh/d heating, 40kWh/d transport and 18kWh/d electricity consumption, with the rest being lost in transmission. I assume he’s counting the usage by industry, otherwise we are wasteful indeed in the UK – my personal usage is 15/13/2 for comparison.

Apart from air travel,the whole work/commuting/house price mess is susceptible to reductions. At the moment cheap energy/transport is distorting our economy and  living patterns, concentrating them and leading us to commute long distances. In an energy challenged world we just won’t be able to do that, and hopefully the requirement to produce bulk consumables (food, building materials etc) closer to the point of use will spread things out a bit more.

I haven’t really come to a view yet on how an energy challenged world will change the balance between capital and labour. In today’s world, capital has used cheap energy to drive te cost of labour down, but this has been facilitated by better communications. We will probably retain most of the better communications, but we may end up focusing more on the basics and essentials of life.

I also haven’t taken a view on the effect of an energy crunch on human population because I haven’t got any way of getting my head round the data. It will probably range somewhere between the living standards of the 1960s in the West and the sort of thing is all about. It’ll probably be different from life today, and curiously enough I think that some of that difference may not necessarily be a bad thing.