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The truth about energy

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The truth about energy

8th December 2008

* The Problem

All energy on the Earth comes from the Sun or previous suns. Our Standard of Living is more or less proportional to our energy use. Some small gains can be made by improving the efficiency of methods of conversion of sources into “useful” energy, but the future improvements will almost certainly not keep pace with the current increases in world population and its industrialization.

First let us examine what energy is available to us.

Sunlight - Stored Sunlight or Fossil Fuels - Nuclear Fission - Nuclear Fusion - Tides

* Sunlight

This can be collected directly by electronic means such as photovoltaic cells. These are useful in some places but expensive and inconvenient and geographically selective. They are generally quite good in places where there is no water. Really useful! You can transmit power from the desert but it is expensive and only works around half of each day. Storing the energy in batteries is very, very expensive.

Sunlight can be collected by growing crops for conversion into useful energy. Nature has cracked the method of using sunlight to convert the elements into hydro-carbons but the method is slow and expensive to us. Farming energy crops is intensive of scarce land and labour and its further exploitation will fundamentally change the nature of the earth’s ecosystem. This could be disastrous. No one actually knows. It will certainly cause severe food shortages worldwide.

Sunlight could be collected by orbiting mirrors that is possibly not beyond the means of modern technology. The reflection of large amounts of power onto the earth’s surface would certainly be expensive and could disturb the heat balance of the planet. No one knows – it has never been done before.

The coal, oil, shale and peat that we now exploit are simply stored sunshine. The supplies are limited and their conversion to energy releases large amounts of carbon stored over many millions of years. It cannot be said to be a sensible thing to do to release several million year’s worth of stored carbon into the atmosphere within two centuries. No one actually knows what the carbon balance of the planet should, or could, look like. To mess with it on this scale has got to be foolish. This is, effectively, a step change in carbon level, something that has probably never happened before in quite this manner in the four billion year history of the planet. No one can possibly predict the consequences.

Sunlight can be collected by harvesting the wind that is mostly caused by the rotational energy of the earth itself and by varying heat balances within the atmosphere. No one has yet convinced me that this harvest is free. Taking lots of energy from any system must have an effect. The kinetic energy taken from the wind is mostly returned to the atmosphere as heat. This is probably easily radiated into space but there are no actions without consequences. There are no free lunches.

* Mechanical recovery

The motions of the planet and its moon cause ocean tides and some of the energy in this process can be extracted. I do not believe this can be without consequences as well as the obvious ones of the possible environmental upheaval of dams and barrages. Tidal energy is always going to be very expensive. The removal of energy from the earth may well slow it down. The effect may well be miniscule – but we do not know the consequences. The earth's magnetic field depends upon the interaction of electic currents in the earth's core and the relative motion of different slices of the core. The core has inertia and applying a force against the earth might just change the relative motions of the core slices. We just might provoke a reversal in the earth's magnetic field that will take many years and during which we, and most terrestrial life forms, will get well and truly fried. There are no free lunches. You may snigger - but you do not know any better. An ancient greek once said "give me a suitable fulcrum and I will move the earth". Maybe we will.

* Nuclear energy

Other suns provided us with reserves of a small amount of nuclear fuel, mainly in the form of Uranium. This provides power without, normally, chemically affecting the atmosphere. There is probably not enough recoverable uranium to seriously affect the heat balance of the planet. There are contamination problems but these should be manageable. They should not destroy the atmosphere in the way that most of the other methods above threaten. Release of nuclear dirt into the atmosphere is un-intended and exceptional; all other chemical methods do it deliberately as part of the process. Fast Breeder reactors seem to offer the ability to make more use of Uranium but the technology is difficult and, of course, expensive.

* Fusion Energy

This is the way energy is released inside the sun and most other stars. It is a fairly simple process but requires ultra high temperatures and pressures to be contained very reliably while operating a complicated series of manoeuvres to recover energy from it. I visited such a facility, on a job interview, as a very young man in 1960. From what I read, much progress has been made but a practical reactor looks as far away now as it did then. Don’t hold your breath. Unlimited power production could, in any case, seriously damage the earth by altering the energy balance of the atmosphere.

Professor Lovelock has said that the success of nuclear fusion was his bigest nightmare. The availability of unlimited energy would inevitably lead to an infinite population. One time astornomer Fred Hoyle calculated that at our present rate of expansion the earth would, by 2200 be composed entirely of human bodies expanding outward at the speed of light. Utterly rediculous, of course, but that is where our present economic system is heading. And we like to call ourselves Homo sapiens!

* Fallacies

Some of the ideas expressed above are crack-pot. They certainly are but if, in 1908, my great grandfather had warned that the newfangled electricity generating-stations and the motor car would threaten the stability of the atmosphere before the end of the century, they would have heard the laughing in Australia. Accurate predication is impossible. Mostly we are guessing.

* Hydrogen is the fuel of the future and will solve all problems


Hydrogen is the fundamental element of the Universe and the only practical source of energy other than Uranium. It is very rare on the surface of the earth and is very expensive to obtain. There is a vast amount of it in water but it likes to stay there. Getting it out is expensive and there is absolutely no way to get round the expense problem. Getting it out requires energy - that is a fundamental equation of the atomic universe - and energy is expensive.

Hydrogen is the useful part in hydro-carbons that form the basis of all known fuels, including what we call food. It is the hydrogen that gives us energy and the carbon that causes the waste problems. The hydro-carbon, despite its problems, is by far the most efficient carrier of hydrogen known to us. There are no alternatives.

Every means of obtaining energy from fuels requires this basic equation.

Hydro-carbon + Oxygen = Energy + Carbon dioxide + Water

There is no other chemical means to produce energy available to us.

The conversion of oxygen and carbon to carbon-dioxide seems to be causing a “greenhouse” effect in the atmoshpere. The process is also diminishing our hard-won stocks of oxygen that is not natural to the earth but has been provided by several billion years of biological activity. The source is not infinite and is expendable. Trees produce oxygen but we are slaughtering them by the millions. Micro-biological stuff in the oceans produces oxygen but we may out-compete them. We simply do not know.

You can produce energy by mixing oxygen and hydrogen

Hydrogen + Oxygen = Energy + Water

Note there is no horrible carbon dioxide here. But where do you get the Hydrogen from? You only get it by expending even more energy in the first equation. There are no free lunches. You can get hydrogen using electrolysis of water using electricity from sunlight but it is very expensive. The sunlight may be free but compared to oil it is very dissipated and the technology is not free.

Using hydrogen gas is an expensive option and technically difficult. Hydrogen is the lightest substance in the universe and occupies the largest space of any element. Carrying it around is therefore difficult. The only practical way is to compress it to a very high pressure. A cylinder of hydrogen at very high pressure is a potential bomb. Placing millions of these on our roads and garages is an act not to be taken lightly. A tank of petrol is potentially dangerous. An equivalent tank of hydrogen is at least ten times as dangerous - possibly 100 times.

The energy to compress the hydrogen is also totally lost and is another source of inefficiency and energy loss.

* Electric cars will reduce pollution


Electric cars will actually increase pollution. The road operation of the electric car is exactly as power intensive as the petrol or diesel motor vehicle. The conversion of the energy from a combustion device into a power station, step up transformer, power line, step down transformer, into a battery, into a motor and hence the vehicle is simply adding at least two more inefficient stages to the conversion process and thus wasting even more power. Batteries, even modern ones, are very inefficient. There is some room for energy recovery by on-board regeneration but the overall benefit is minimal. The best that the electric car does is to shift the - increased - pollution problem onto someone else's doorstep.

There is another serious problem with electric cars - the heater. One characteristic of the fuel powered car is that the engine is usually less than 50% efficient and the waste heat has to be radiated to atmosphere. This makes it fairy simple to heat the interior of the vehicle. I remember the days when car heaters were an unusual option - and traveling in an unheated car could be a nightmare. There are very few people who would be willing to do this now. I seem to remember needing a heater even in Los Angeles on a winter's night. So we need to be able to heat the car via the batteries or whatever device is used. This will probably double the difficulty of design and construction of the power source. All that energy has to be transmitted through the batteries with high losses and the energy used will subtract directly from the potential range of the vehicle. Air conditioning presents an even worse nightmare.

We have not even begun to consider the power drain on batteries from the multiplicity of powerful, and energy demanding, lights that adorn modern cars and the the multiplitiy of electrically powered gadgets that are also demanded by unthinking modern motorists. All of these things will make the battery car more difficult by a very significant amount.

* Power cells will provide clean energy


Power cells are simply very special - and very expensive - batteries into which you inject hydrogen instead of a recharge. You still have to get the hydrogen - and that is always expensive. See above.

Whenever I use the word “expensive”, I mean expensive both in money and energy, and often in material resources and brain power. That expense must ultimately return in the cost to the consumer.

* Efficiency improvements will provide much more room for population expansion


Improvements in the efficiency of most combustion processed are historically well under way. There is certainly room for some improvement but the industrial world is committed to increasing itself at a rate certainly above four percent compounded upwards. Efficiency improvements of four percent per annum are almost certainly impossible to achieve and the trend is naturally downward. Population bootstraps upwards for ever while efficiency gains are gathered subject to the law of diminishing returns. One is an unconstrained positive exponential and the other a constrained negative exponential and there is little to be done about that. They will never balance. It is mathematically impossible.

* Carbon capture can keep the atmosphere clean

Probably rubbish

This is certainly technologically possible but it is very expensive. The cleaning of any of the products of combustion is expensive and likely to remain so. Technological improvements are highly unlikely to exceed the rate of growth of the world’s energy production. Pumping carbon dioxide underground and keeping it there for the next 10,000 years or so is obviously an expensive proposition. Our modern technology cannot think ten years ahead, let alone 10,000.

* All of the available methods properly applied will enable the continuation of civilisation


Each and every one of the methods available to us is more expensive than oil. There are no special breakthroughs – even fusion, should it prove effective – will not be cheaper than oil once it has been through multiple conversions of both energy and infrastructure to make it work for the masses. Our ability to provide these advanced technologies will probably never reach the four percent annual increase implied within the present world socio-economic system. This implies a substantial redirection of effort into this process. This is going to be expensive and with a con-committant reduction in the standard of living of all participating. Every new technological advance is gained at expense. There is a massive intellectual investment and usually the practical applications of new technology are expensive both in brainpower and materials. Nuclear power once looked exceedingly cheap but is now clearly very expensive.

The materials of the earth are a finite resource. There is usually more available as the price increases but that implies a reduction in the standard of living of those using the the more expensive materials. I have never met anyone who is happy to accept a reduction in his standard of living. It also implies an inceased fouling of the planet by our wastes.

* The world (ecosphere) has looked after itself for at least four billion years and will take care of itself now

Probably true but we will not like what happens

The world has suffered many step inputs before – most have resulted in serious changes – the last one probably killed the dinosaurs. We cannot expect our step input to have no consequences – and they could be disastrous. We simply do not know – and we are seriously messing with the only home we have or are ever likely to have. The planet will survive - and probably life - but our future is by no means secure.

* The Solution

There is no solution

At least there is not a technological one. We are simply outrunning our resources in energy, materials and effort. The rewards of our ingenuity are suffering the laws of diminishing returns while our ability to procreate proceeds onward at an ever increasing pace.

In the 1970’s Gerard K. O’Neill wrote The High Frontier that describes rather well the ability of man to harvest the space surrounding earth or even the sun. You should see his web site of the same name for further information. What he suggested was technically feasible then but I do not think a single important step has been taken to implement his strategy. It is the only one I have seen in my long life that comes anywhere near to offering a future for the Human Race. As long as we remain rooted on this planet we had better look carefully at what we are doing to it and to ourselves.

In the early part of the twentieth century John Maynard Keynes published his ideas on how to run an economy and they have served us well for over half a century. So well, in fact, that Homo Technologis has now swamped much of the world with his presence and is threatening to swamp the rest within a few years. His expansion has been onto fairly welcoming territory. The only territory left now is mostly extremely hostile and therefore expensive to live on. Man has never before outrun the materials of the world. He has now.

The essence of Keynes' scheme is that you need to be able to borrow money to finance risk-taking businesses. Those who provide the money expect to get rewards and the minimum that makes the risk worthwhile is around four percent. There are many who have come to expect much more that this but that is a slightly different story. If you set up your socio-economy to accept that loans should earn interest and that the money should be used to increase production, or efficiency of production, by a similar amount then the economy will grow each year by a similar amount. The currency will also tend to depreciate by a similar amount so that the borrower is actually paying a much smaller effective rate of interest.

The beauty of this system is that the losers, those on a fixed income or pension, hardly notice, mainly because most of them are fairly rich and old and decrepit. They are subsidising their offspring. Amongst the active participants there appears to be no losers. It does involve a lot of negotiation - usually on an annual basis - but works remarkably well. The end result is that the economic activity of the West as grown at an annual rate of around 7.5 percent for over 75 years. In that time the economy has grown by a factor of 200. It should not go without record that inflation has degraded our money by a similar amount. Our demand for materials and the production of waste products has seen a similar increase.

The world population has been growing exponentially – that means according to its present size – since about 1830 when the developments of the Industrial Revolution – most notably the flush toilet – began to conquer disease. The population zoomed and as the technology has improved and spread it continues to zoom. Malthus predicted at the beginning of the nineteenth century that Man would outgrow his resources. He was proved wrong only because the Industrial Revolution provided resources to mankind never before imagined. That revolution is unlikely to be repeated. We have reached the end of the line. If we do not leave this planet then we must restrain our growth. There is very little left unexploited.

Our technology is already superb – but cannot find solutions to the overpopulation problem. We already have more people than the planet can handle and there is no sign of a reduction in the growth of either population or industrialisation. The combination of population growth and industrialisation is probably causing the conversion of the world’s resources to increase at around 12 percent per annum. It doubles every six years. This was fine as long as Man was a tiny component of the Earth’s biosphere. The method served him well. But now the species is socially and technologically mature. Quasi exponential growth is normal in a maturing life form. Exponential growth in a mature form is called cancer – and we ruthlessly prune it. That is what we now have to do with our society. We have to grow up and stop growing - or die a terrible death.

If you vehemently disagree with this, please do so - it is doubtful that you will do so in around 12 years' time and certain that you will not do so in twenty years' time. We are about to hit the buffers. In Earth time 20 years is not even a fraction of a blink.

* Natural feedback mechanisms will control the world's population

Probably not

For much of my professional life I designed, built and maintained servo control systems. These are the electro-mechanical and electronic devices that make "automatic" factories and power robots work.

The mathematics that describes them is fairly straight forward when you understand it and can be applied to many of the millions of "natural systems" that exist on earth. The essence of the system is feedback, a well used and well misused word. Most of us know that feedback implies gathering information about what we do and using it to improve our performance. This is exactly what a servo system does but it has some rigid mathematical constraints. These are unavoidable unless you wish to make your system unstable - the consequences of which are rarely good.

The system which I am considering now is the world's socio-economic system. When it hits the buffers - it may already have done so - it will respond with a characteristic Time Constant - every system does so. It can then oscillate wildly with a period of, probably, several hundreds of years, or it can head towards a new settling level at which it may stop oscillating. Each of these responses requires the movement of large amounts of energy within or from the system - what the techies call damping. In this instance the energy may be both real energy or population size. The exact details are far too complicated to analyse accurately; but you can be sure the system will respond and fairly certain many of us will not like the results.

Whichever response the system takes it will initially involve a very rapid decrease in population and industrial activity. When one considers that the system we have used for the last 300 years demands continuous expansion, this will be a very serious matter. There are likely to be many implosions and possibly one huge implosion. It is by no means certain that we are not already witnessing the beginnings of such an implosion. Feedback most certainly will kick in but we are unlikely to find the results agreeable.

One thing is absolutely certain. The current credit crunch has come about because much of The West has been living beyond its means. The biggest creditors are China and Saudi Arabia. This means that the economic Balance of Power has already passed a long way eastwards. It may well remain there. We have been living in a fool's paradise and well beyond our means. Just how any government will handle this situation is difficult to see. There has not been a sustained decrease in standard of living for several hundred years at least. We do not know the consequences. These factors simply mean that the UK is not in a strong position to face up to a very uncertain future. When you face adversity you need all your resources reserved and conserved, not squandered on trivia in a manner that puts you in debt to your biggest rivals.

Economics and the Environment are intimately intertwined by carbon and hydrogen - the stuff of life and power. The way we use it in future will determine our future as a species. It is exceedingly difficult to imagine how we are going to transform an allegedly Keynesian system of continual growth to one of stagnation - or annual reduction - without mass riots in the streets and possibly much worse.

We certainly live in interesting times.

8th December 2008.

Colin Walker

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