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Saturday, February 16, 2008

That Was The Free Energy That Was

Went to see that movie "There Will Be Blood" (written and directed by
Paul Thomas Anderson and staring Daniel Day Lewis. It is an
adaptation of the Upton Sinclair book "Oil!". Funny because the
Lewis character is from Fon Du Lac, Wisconsin (ten miles from my
father's birth town) and the movie takes place in the hills just east
of Santa Maria, CA (where I was born). But other than that, there
isn't anything funny about the movie at all.

This is a good story to cap off our short little 100 year obsession
with oil (written 70 years ago!). Puts our naive habituation to
(almost) free energy and the god-like feeling of omnipotence, or at
the very least, endless hope into perspective. As a result we have
been living with a false since of security resulting from this almost
free energy and the simple fact that nothing before us has had the
wits or tenacity to tap into all of this conveniently stored, highly
concentrated, solar energy, tucked away as it has been, untouched
while it accumulated for the past few hundred million years.

Three hundred million years of accidentally stored solar energy!
Then we humans burn through it in just a few decades. That feat would
be impressive if it weren't for the rather sobering fact that there
really isn't anything to replace it, nothing at all waiting in the
wings to take it's place at the base of this giant churning machine
of progress we have come to know as "is". The great achievement,
success and yes, progress we have produced this last century is based
entirely on this ready-to-burn source of abundant and highly
concentrated energy. Without coal, oil and gas we could never have
done what we have done. Never. As obvious as this is, people really
don't get it, we don't experience our own recent history as a history
of easy energy driving every progress we have achieved. Yet it was
and is. Yes we have worked hard to drill it, tap it, pump it, refine
it, ship it, and build devices that burn it to productive ends... but
all of that work of extraction or use is but nothing in comparison to
the wealth of energy trapped into every drop of it.

And what of the sun's energy? What of the constant stream of
energetic photons arriving each and every moment, free of charge?
There is roughly 4 orders of magnitude more energy arriving from the
sun than we humans currently use... that is ten thousand times as
much solar energy hitting this earth every year than all of the
energy we humans consume. At first glance, that would seem like a
hopeful figure. But how much of that yearly budget of solar energy
is truly available for the taking? Meaning, how much of the solar
budget is excess, is not necessary for the continued healthy stable
running of basic global processes like the atmosphere, the oceans,
the plant and animal biosphere, the water cycle, wind, ocean
currents, the jet streams, etc. We are not used to thinking in these
terms. We are not used to the fact that the daily doings of human
culture now legitimately compete with systems as vast as ocean
currents and hurricanes. So lets ask this question because it needs
to be asked... how much of the earth's daily solar energy budget can
we divert into power lines and into the batteries of our cars and
trucks, and the machines of our collective industries without forever
disturbing the atmospheric and bio systems upon which everything we
do is interdependent? I don't have an answer to this question. I
don't know where to look. I don't know how one would set up a
simulation or metric to measure this percentage of "excess" energy or
biosphere leeway.

One thing is certain, we are just now beginning to become aware of
the sensitivity of our planet's heat budget. We are not a closed
system. But it looks like this planet is better at capturing energy
than it is at releasing it. As space craft engineers are well aware,
getting rid of heat in a vacuum is a difficult process. Earth is a
space craft, sits in the vacuum of space in the exact same way. As
we all now know, carbon accumulating in the upper atmosphere (from
human burning of fossil fuels) has begun to effect colossally large
systems like ocean temperatures and polar ice sheets. Wouldn't it be
presumptuous to assume that man-made solar energy collectors would
not have a profound effect on our global solar powered natural
systems? Taking sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed as heat,
used by plants (to strip water into its component oxygen an hydrogen,
build complex carbon chains from that hydrogen and the carbon dioxide
in the air), or bounce back into space, would necessarily effect this
balance of heat even more. When we collect the sun's rays and
convert them into electricity, we trap a percentage of energy that
would otherwise be reflected into space, or absorbed into natural
heat or bio-cycles. When we ship our electricity by wire we loose
between 20 and 50 percent of it to friction in the wire... that is
heat. When we use what electricity makes it to the end of the wire
to power a machine, we are usually even less efficient.

If Boltzman, Carnot, Boyle, Hooke, Joule, Thomson's, von Guericke,
and others are right (and there is evidence that they are more right
than anyone else has ever been... that their discoveries sit at base
under and inform the behavior and makeup of all other physical
processes in every domain) then their laws of thermodynamics make it
clear that energy captured eventually has to be released as heat and
that is that. The question then becomes not one of energy type, but
energy source: is the energy already here on earth, or is it getting
into our system from the sun (or somewhere else). If it is already
here, already in-system, then it will shift energy around, could
accelerate local heating (or in the case of not using a resource that
is already here... cooling), but won't ultimately add to Earth's heat
budget. But when we capture solar energy that would otherwise have
not stayed here, solar energy that misses the earth or that bounces
off, then we do increase the amount of energy in-system and thus the
amount of heat that will ultimately precipitate... heat that will
either drive the earth's temperature up or have to be exported into

Do man-made solar collectors collect energy than would otherwise be
reflected into space? If they are doing a better job of capturing
the sun's energy than what ever they cover up or replace, then the
answer is "yes". If the answer is "yes", then any such use of solar
energy will increase the rate of global warming. It is that
simple. The next question is: is more or less heat accumulated
through the capture and use of solar energy than by the burning of
fossil fuels? Which is the better of the two evils? A similar
comparison must be made between these and other energy sources like
nuclear and solar energy's cousins, wind, ocean currents, and waves,
and then there is the moon's tidal pull, and the earth's internal
geothermal heat. Other deeply sober measurements must be made and
understood... what is the net heat signature if an acre of land that
was grassland (ice field, ocean, mountain, desert, jungle, forest)
as compared with the same acre covered by photovoltaic cells?

Of course other energy sources contribute to global warming as well.
In-system or not. When we take fossil fuels out of the ground and
convert their "potential" energy into actual energy, we activate that
total heat signature and move it rapidly out of the realm of some-day
and towards it's ultimate resting state as heat. Both rapid
oxidation (burning the stuff) and more gentlemanly conversions like
the the pseudo-alchemy that charms electricity in fuel cells excite
the rapid aging of energy towards heat. Before these forced
conversions, energy trapped for millions of years will become plain
old run of the mill heat within seconds, minutes or, at best, days.

So, we have discussed the inevitability of the energy-to-heat process
that results in any energy use. We have looked at the earth as a
heat-trap positioned as it is in an almost perfect thermos that is
the vacuum of space. Now let's refocus our discussion on the other
side of energy use inevitability... the lockstep growth in evolution
that binds increases in complexity with increases in energy use. It
is obvious that we humans continue to desire, find and use more and
more energy. Until now we have found (in oil) a ready supply to meet
this increasing demand. Now what?

Even if we were to use all of the (excess?) solar energy streaming
down on this little planet (that not used by the plants and the
oceans and the atmosphere) we could still just barely supply the
energy needed now, this year, the energy needed by a planet where
only 1/30th of the population uses energy at first world levels. In
the next few decades, the energy demands of the 3 percent of us that
are rich enough now to use oil will be mirrored in the other 97
percent of the world's population. That means that the world will
collectively demand about 30 times the energy that we are currently
using. And that figure assumes a freeze on the amount energy per
person per year to what we use in the west today! A freeze in energy
use has never happened before so it would be naive to assume it will
happen now. The pattern so far is to double (per person) energy
demand each twenty years or so. Given this unadjusted historically
proven growth curve, the global appetite for energy should quickly
rise to about 900 times as great as today. How will we meet this

There is no science available today that can come close to answering
this question, meeting this demand! People talk of the potential of
nuclear but nuclear represents a paltry single digit percentage of
current global energy production. If nuclear was to replace oil in
the next few decades we would have to build over 10,000 times more
reactors than are on line today. We don't have access to 10,000
times more plutonium. This is a hard limit. It is true that nuclear
power plants convert only a sliver of the energy Einstein's little
equation (E=mC2) allows, but other even more fundamental
thermodynamic laws insert ridged upper limits under most realistic
situations. It is possible that some new Manhattan Project will do
for the strong force what the weak force did for the A-bomb, but
containment of such a quantum reaction might actually demand or be
the cause of a new universe (more later). Suffice it to say, we can
probably expect percentage increases in energy production
efficiency... but we will squeeze these last few drops from the well
of potential while our global economic engine demands instead fold
increases in energy supply.

So, if energy demand rises geometrically (and I have seen no science
saying it won't), and if energy supply continues to fall (or
stagnate) do to natural limits imposed by resource depletion, what
will happen? This is the big question. This is the civilization
ending question.

My parents like to say that when I was a kid I wouldn't believe that
we were out of ice cream; that I said "I want to see the all gone!"

How much shock of the all gone will civilization be able to stand?
What happens when everything we equate with modern life becomes
impossible? What happens when humans have to take a giant step
backwards in the span of one generation. I think this scenario is
unprecedented in human history. We are simply not used to not moving
forward... to giving up what we are used to... our kids having less
than we have. Yet I can think of nothing interrupting this
depressing inevitability. Nothing is standing in the wings as
replacement of geologically stored hydrocarbons... to replace oil.

Oil is why we only have less than 3 percent of our population
involved in food production. Oil is why we have trains, cars, ships,
and airplanes. There is nothing like oil. There is no other
substance that we can put into the tanks of our transportation
machines. The defiance department spent a lot of money in the 50's
and early 60's trying to do for airplanes what nuclear reactors did
for submarines and destroyers. Of course this didn't work, the
shielding necessary to protect the rest of the plane and it's
passengers from radiation and heat (lead) are far to heavy to use in
a flying machine. Same goes for cars and tractors of course. This
is why I am always talking about passing the evolution baton to that
which will come after biology.

Humans are smart, but not smart enough to do what needs to be done in
the next 30 years. This planet is now in need of a thing or things
thousands of times smarter (more alive) than humans. It might be
true, it might be possible, if we had 300 years to react, for humans
to come to a solution, but we don't, we don't have much more than 2
decades to figure this out. I truly hope I am wrong. I truly hope
there is a technological solution, a political solution, a policy and
cultural solution, but I am not able to bet my own energy in this
direction of hope. The odds are to slim. The science is not there.
Reality points to limits where exponential growth is demanded.
People who care point optimistically towards conservation and
efficiency. These efforts must continue, they must be taken all the
way to their maximum potential. But they won't be enough. Worse,
we must ask some sober questions about the collective human psyche
when our world becomes increasingly uncompromising in its inability
to satisfy our demands.

How do people react when resources shrink instead of grow? This is
new psychological territory. We have always lived within limits. But
we have never lived within increasing limits. What does increasing
limits do to our already child like temperaments and intolerance's
towards not getting what we want? We knew we could easily rebuild
the fallen twin towers, yet we still choose a course of destructive
reaction that has almost brought the world's economy to it's knees.
What will we do, what will the common human reaction be, in a similar
situation where we know we can't rebuild? Anyway, for today we are
fine (at least we are a few years away from the impending obviousness
of the energy wall we face).

Please visit the following Wikipedia section on global energy use and
supply (excellent summery of our situation):

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