Energy is a very important subject, and a complicated one. It’s not just that different pundits and different political parties advocate opposing and contradictory policies. Often, the exact same person will propose a set of policies that are work against each other. That goes beyond complication to confusion, sometimes deliberately created confusion. We could certainly use a few reliable standards that would allow us to distinguish feasible ideas from improbable or impossible fantasies.
Here’s one. Rising costs of energy cause decreasing energy use per capita and contraction of the real economy. It’s hard to argue with that. It’s just economics 101. In the United States, we saw it happen in the oil shocks of the 1970s and again in the extreme oil price spike of 2008. The immediate pain of rising energy costs falls mostly on poor people. When the prices stay high, the whole society, including businesses and governments, needs to adjust, whether the adjustments are painful or not.
Where this principle gets tricky to understand is in the question, “What is the cause of a price rise?” Sometimes it is manipulation of the world oil market bye producers or speculators or both. That is especially true when the price change is sharp and sudden, with no corresponding sudden change in the physical supply. But when there is a general price trend over decades, after the sudden changes up and down have averaged out, then we might suspect elements beyond the control of speculators.
At one time, it was imagined that electricity from nuclear power would be cheap, abundant, and greatly beneficial. After many decades of testing and development, nuclear power has proven to be both dangerous and expensive.
The meltdowns at Fermi 1, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima are more than adequate to demonstrate the danger.
The nuclear power industry can exist only with massive subsidy from the government. The Price-Anderson act transfers liability for damages from the reactor owners to the federal government. No corporation would consider building a nuclear plant without government guaranteed loans to cover the construction cost. Detroit Edison expects to spend $15 billion, if they are able to build Fermi 3. $15 billion would buy $3,900 worth of solar panels for every household in Michigan. Which would be the better way to spend $15 billion in guaranteed loans?
Nuclear power is very much a dead end, although zombie reactors will still be causing problems for us decades after they are shut down. Spent fuel will be causing us problems at least for centuries.
Here’s another essential principle to keep in mind. Our industrial economy functions only with a continuous supply of the exact types of energy for which particular machines are designed. This is surprisingly easy to forget, if the discussion whirls off into and abstract discussion of “energy,” as though all types or sources of energy are exactly equivalent.
All are equivalent on an abstract level, but in the real world – if your car is designed to run on gasoline, then you need gasoline, not nuclear power or solar power or hydropower or coal or natural gas or diesel fuel. Your computer, phone and lights run on electricity. Plentiful gasoline in an electrical outage won’t help, unless you also have a gasoline-powered generator.
Over a long period of time, of course, our society adjusts to the specific types and quantities of energy that are available. 150 years ago, there were no automobiles. 150 years from now, there may once again be no automobiles, except as curiosities in museums and the collections of a few rich people, about equivalent to the current status of sundials. That’s an interesting subject for historians and science-fiction writers, but not so much for the day-to-day policies needed to make our real economy operate.
Burning fossil fuels directly supply about 85% of the energy to our economy. For a comprehensive picture of what energy sources deliver energy to different parts of the economy, see https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/index.html. Transportation, heating, farming and communication all depend, in greater or lesser degree, on fossil fuels. For both creation and delivery, hydropower, biofuel and nuclear power also depend on fossil fuels.
Extracting, processing and burning fossil fuels produces excess carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions. These have caused climate change/global warming/ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide and methane together account for roughly 90% of warming. Methane in the atmosphere has a half-life of roughly a decade, because it reacts with ozone to become carbon dioxide. It will take centuries after excess emissions have stopped for atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to return to the normal range of 240-280 parts per million. Thus, climate warming and acidification will continue for centuries. It gets worse the longer we continue burning fuels and creating emissions.
Fossil fuels do additional and enduring localized damage to the environment. There is chemical pollution of drinking water, volatile organic compounds in the air, sudden sinkholes in areas where mining has happened, and the destruction of entire mountains by coal mining. Extraction of bitumen from tar sands has created industrial wastelands at the mines and processing plants, poisoning downstream with a variety of toxics, spills and fires whether transported by rail or pipeline and petroleum coke waste at the refineries that turn it into liquid fuels.
Why do we now have development of tar sands syncrude and deep water drilling and fracking for gas and oil when we used to have simple drilling for oil? In a word, depletion. In particular, relatively clean and easy to tap reservoirs have been depleting since the day they were first tapped. There are people who argue with this idea, but they are people who somehow do not understand that the earth is spherical, and therefore finite. Thus the oil, coal and gas deposits which are only a fraction of the earth’s crust are also obviously finite.
Depletion is no theory. It is just a fact of life in older oil regions, from the corner of Pennsylvania where Col. Drake supervised drilling the United States’ first oil well to Alaska’s North Slope to Britain’s North Sea. At least with the older, easy oil reservoirs, depletion rates meant that a well might produce profitably for several decades. The newer sort of fracked wells have such high depletion rates that they will produce profitably for only a few years. Google “fracking red queen syndrome” for a more detailed explanation.
Depletion of fossil fuels leads to increased extraction from difficult and expensive deposits. This means that the average net energy of each gallon, cubic foot or ton of fuel produced decreases over time. “Net energy” is an easy concept to understand, because it is exactly parallel to “net profit.” Both expenses and gross returns for an enterprise can be measured in dollars. Returns minus expenses equals net profit. For a fossil fuel energy source, the energy expended in extracting, processing and delivering the fuel can be measured in terms of energy consumed, equivalent to expenses. The energy in the fuel can also be measured, most accurately in a calorimeter. Fuel energy minus consumed energy equals net energy.
It is easy to understand, but not so easy to measure. Mainly, no set of energy accounting equivalent to the precisely defined system of bookeeping for money has so far been devised. That sort of energy bookeeping has not been thought necessary while more cheap energy seemed always abundant. The repeated disappointments of depleted wells and played-out mines are slowly changing that perception.
Professor Charles Hall, at the State University of New York, has been a leader in developing energy bookeeping. in conjunction with numerous others, he has contributed to developing the big picture of the “net energy cliff,” which I found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Net_energy_cliff.gif.
(click on chart to view full size.)
What this says is that tar sands and oil shales and biofuels simply do not have enough net energy to support modern industrial societies. Conventional oil, gas and coal do, but these are depleting or in many regions already depleted.
According to this diagram, wind and solar power do have enough net energy to run an industrial civilization. However, if they are going to do so, we had better get about the business of developing them, because they are currently supplying only a small fraction of the energy we use.
In summary: The fossil fuels humanity has used extensively for the last several centuries have numerous bad unintended consequences. The sooner we shrink the emitting economy and develop the wind and solar-powered society, the better off we will be.
This short essay leaves unanswered the questions of how we should best organize politically and personally to accomplish the necessary energy transformation, but it helps to have a clear goal.