Much of the energy debate at present is based around the risks associated with energy procurement systems; emissions from burning fossil fuels (FF) and radiation hazards linked to nuclear power. New renewables (wind, solar and wave power) are presented as a risk free alternative to FF and nuclear. However, what is systematically overlooked by renewables advocates are the risks associated for individuals or for society not having access to affordable energy when it is needed.
FF and to a lesser extent nuclear power created the developed world that most of us live in; they created society’s surpluses we know as savings, pensions and wealth; they created prosperity beyond the wildest dreams of 19th Century citizens; they have created health, longevity, security, well-being and comfort for billions. It is true that this road to fabulous prosperity has come with costs mainly linked to population growth and environmental degradation that should not be ignored. And FF also provide the energy to conduct modern warfare. But for today’s political classes to turn their backs on the primary source of succour for the Human Race is a hazardous course to set. This is not yet self evident or understood since, contrary to all the hype and propaganda, the world still runs on FF.
Figure 1 Humans harnessing fire set us apart from all other species and on the energy course we still find ourselves on today. Fire provided heat and light, security from wild animals, a means to cook meat, enhancing calorie intake, and a means to manufacture tools and weapons. These early humans had calculated that the risk of burning a hand was outweighed by the aforementioned benefits of having fire. Wood is a solar energy store that can be burned when we identify the need of its benefits.
I find it increasingly alarming to hear voices rejoicing in the demise of fossil fuel producers or FF based electricity generators. Some of these voices have no regard for the well fare of Mankind and have vested interests making money for themselves out of the suffering of others.
In this post I provide a perspective on the history of Energy and Mankind. The post grew rather large, over 3000 words, and so I have opted to post it in what will likely become three parts covering:
- Origins of usable energy on Earth
- Energy stores and flows
- Energy quality
- Energy slaves
- Energy transitions
- No such thing as a free lunch in the energy world
Figure 2 To the right is a list of energy (and material) services provided to Human society by our current energy system that is based almost exclusively on FF. Utilisation of coal at scale since the early 19th Century and subsequently oil and gas has provided the energy for industrialisation and consequent major advances in science and medicine. FFs also provide the energy for modern agriculture – locomotion, fertilizers and pesticides that combined with advances in science and medicine have underpinned the rapid expansion of human population to over 7 billion. The welfare of this population is totally dependent upon the continued provision of energy services at a level similar to, if not a little lower, than the past. FF data from BP and other sources.
Before going on to take a detailed look at the many facets of energy and mankind that I feel everyone should know about, it is I believe worthwhile pondering for a moment the myriad services provided to society by our current energy system. These are detailed in Figure 1. When politicians and lobby groups see fit to meddle with the current system that has grown organically over the centuries, there needs to be a clear understanding about what is put at risk. A blackout may close all places of work, leave traffic jammed, mums isolated from kids at school, trucks carrying food isolated, food rotting in supermarket freezers, petrol pumps standing idle, water supply and disposal compromised, bacteria having a field day. Food poisoning can be extremely dangerous. Did all those who voted for the UK 2008 climate change act weigh these serious risks that society may be exposed to as a result of their actions?
The brief history of mankind harnessing energy to do work is summarised in Figure 1. Waterwheels have in fact been around since Roman times and burning timber, a good deal longer than that. Using draft animals (and slaves) and sailing ships goes back to at least Egyptian times. Windmills are a more recent invention from the Middle Ages.
For 800 of the last 1000 years global population grew steadily, but by recent standards, slowly. Catastrophes like bubonic plague epidemics are mere blips on the relentless rise of human population. And then in the 19th Century, Mankind’s hunger for energy went into overdrive, burning whale oil to provide light and coal at scale for the first time to provide heat and power for blast furnaces and steam engines. The industrial age was upon us. By the end of the 19th Century we were confronted with an early lesson in consumption of finite resources with the near extinction of many species of whale. A substitute for whale oil was found in kerosene and before long thereafter in electric lighting.
The 19th Century industrial revolution of Europe and N America was founded on coal and timber. In the 20th Century, oil and natural gas were ADDED to the mix and those were followed by the ADDITION of hydroelectric and nuclear power. Energy transition at the global scale takes place by ADDING new energy sources to the existing mix. At no point in the past has Mankind decided to replace on mass one energy source with another as is the case today with calls from many quarters to decarbonise our energy system. UN and government institutions, politicians of every colour, lobby groups and academics would do well to understand this fact.
Figure 3 I was born in 1957 and grew up in the Scottish country town of Kirriemuir. I am therefore approaching 57 years old. The nearest large town was Dundee shown here from around 1960. I recognise the cars, Ford Anglia, Ford Zephyr and Hillman Minx. The trams were already closed but the lines still there, one major mistake made by planners in the UK who thought they knew best. Image source.