Energy and Mankind part 1

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.

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28 Responses to Energy and Mankind part 1

  1. Joe Public says:

    “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?”

    Those who voted for the UK 2008 Climate Change Act certainly failed in their duty of care to the UK’s citizens, by not ensuring there was a caveat along the lines of ‘in the event that CO2 is not proven wholly to cause Global Warming, then the Act shall be repealed immediately.’

    • Roger Andrews says:

      There is such a caveat:

      From the text of the 2008 Climate Change Act:

      “1(1) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the net UK carbon account for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline.

      “2(1) The Secretary of State may by order

      “2(1)(a) amend the percentage specified in section 1(1);

      “2(2)(a) if it appears to the Secretary of State that there have been significant developments in

      “2(2)(a)(i) scientific knowledge about climate change”

      This gives you the option of emasculating the Act without repealing it. And there have certainly been developments in scientific knowledge about climate change since 2008.

      You need to have someone introduce a bill. The Carbon Target Reduction Act of 2014, maybe. It won’t pass, but at least it will get some discussion going.

      • Joe Public says:

        Thanks Roger.

        Presumably the Secretary of State would consult those employed in the climate-change-measuring-industry, to advise whether or not their models have been productive?

    • Ben Elsworth says:

      What if climate change can’t be conclusively “proved” but is happening anyway?

      Anyway in the old days of TOD there was a pretty strong rule about not getting into endless AGW arguments obscuring the discussion about energy – which I thought was a very good one as there are thousands of other places to go and do battle about AGW. I know this is Euan’s blog and not TOD, and his post is a pretty big lead in that direction so… Euan, what’s the form here?

      • Euan Mearns says:

        what’s the form here?

        1) comments should be polite and factually based, supported by links as necessary
        2) comments should be on topic as far as possible

        And so…..

        I made reference to the Climate Change Act, Joe responded, Roger provided what I view as valuable supplementary information. And so the outstanding question in the conversation is whether or not we can trust UK Met Hadley Centre to provide impartial and objective information to the UK Government on the future risks of emissions and the need to decarbonise our energy system, and to ask if UK Met Hadley has weighed these risks realistically against those posed to the population from not having reliable electricity supplies all the time.

        The broader question comes back to cost benefit analysis. Whether you believe Lord Stern or Lord Lawson.

        So this thread is not the place to engage in a civil discussion about climate science, but it is OK to discuss the political process, and the reliability and impartiality of advice that the government pays millions of £ for.


        PS climate science debate is welcome here, adhering to the rules detailed above, but should be limited to climate focussed threads – not had one for a while but some coming up.

        • Roger Andrews says:

          “And so the outstanding question in the conversation is whether or not we can trust UK Met Hadley Centre to provide impartial and objective information to the UK Government on the future risks of emissions and the need to decarbonise our energy system …”

          We already know that we can trust the impartiality and objectivity of Hadley on climate science about as far as we can trust the impartiality and objectivity of the Stern Report that gave the Government the economic backup it wanted.

          “ … and to ask if UK Met Hadley has weighed these risks realistically against those posed to the population from not having reliable electricity supplies all the time.”

          Not Hadley’s job. The government gets this information from people like Ofgem, DECC and the National Grid, who tell them don’t worry, we can handle it, although the Royal Society of Engineering has its doubts.

          In this context you might take a look at the generation mixes for 2035/36 in the just-published National Grid 2014 UK Future Energy Scenarios report (Figure 69 on) to see if you think there’s any realistic chance they could be implemented without the lights going out. I don’t:

  2. Ben Elsworth says:

    Small technical point Euan, the definition of timber is “wood that has been prepared for use in building or carpentry”. Wood that is used for fuel is not called timber.

  3. clivebest says:

    UK Politics is always driven by short term political fashion. Your picture of 1960 Dundee is a classic example. Most towns had beautiful cobbled streets just like the picture shows bordered by early Victorian or Georgian facades. These have all been lost after town planners were let loose to tarmac over the roads in the 60s and build hideous shopping centres during the modernisation mania. Now these same ‘planners’ are putting in speed humps and Traffic calming measures which the old cobbles previously ensured because now fashion sees cars as bad. Right now I am in the ancient Italian town of Gubbio which remains unchanged in 400 years with stone roads still in place, because every Italian understands the importance of preserving their culture.

    Likewise the new political fashion is “sustainability” and renewable energy. You can see the exact same political bandwagon analogy happening today in the push for wind farms, again just for short term political expediency. This time the ancient countryside is under threat and logic flies out the window. We all know that wind energy can’t possibly work and the effort is sheer folly, but the political momentum is currently unstoppable. Eventually our children will have to clear up the mess we are making, when the broken rusting turbines strewn across our countryside have to be demolished – just like we those hideous 60’s tower blocks. This can only happen once the current batch of politicians leave office, assuming they haven’t ruined the economy by then.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Clive, your observation of planners digging up rough roads to make them smooth for cars and then putting bumps on them to control speed kind of sums things up.

      Italy has survived for over 2000 years, they must be doing something right!

    • roberto says:

      “because every Italian understands the importance of preserving their culture.”

      That’s why most italians are NIMBY… against wind farms being developed on the background of medieval views and villages… the flat part of italy, where most of the electricity consumption/industry is located, is no-wind-land…. this explains why Italy is the greatest electricity importer in the EU… 44 TWh last year… mostly nuclear from France, Switzerland and Slovenia, after having voted twice “no” to nuclear referenda, in 1987 and 2011.

      • clivebest says:

        Yes. The Italians are completely wrong about Nuclear. But then so as too are the Germans which is even more puzzling as they are supposed to be logical ! This will all change pretty soon once the s**t hits the turbine!

  4. ducdorleans says:

    correct, but 1 remark …

    the ones who want to replace FF and nuclear by renewables are only to be found in the Old West … and then minus Australia and Canada … and +/- e.g. the old communist, now Western, states …

    we, the EU and the USA, are the only ones … and we will go forward, and looking back, nobody will be there … because noone is as daft as politicians in the EU and the USA … we are the ones, who let the greenish guys take the middle of the discussion, and the “moral high ground” …

    I’m sure we will get over it … that Greenpeace e.a. will be, as is “snow”, a thing of the past … but only after much, unneeded, suffering …

    • Ben Elsworth says:

      “we, the EU and the USA, are the only ones”

      Actually China has more installed wind capacity than any other nation and Asia as a region is forecast to overtake Europe in wind capacity this year (Asia already has far more wind capacity than North America).

      In photovoltaics Germany (36 GW) is still well out in front of China (18 GW) but China only started a few years ago and is installing at a rate that doubles every year (over 11 GW last year) with the aim of reaching 70 GW by 2017 (!!!). Japan (13.5 GW) is also now on a massive PV upswing, installing about 7 GW last year.

      • roberto says:

        “Japan (13.5 GW) is also now on a massive PV upswing, installing about 7 GW last year.”

        Yes… Japanese “greens” hope to replace 280 TWh/year of baseload nuclear with wind farms and PV panels… assuming a 50-50 share of the two they will have to install more than 100 GWp.
        In the meantime they generate the missing CO2- and particulate-free nuclear electricity by importing record amounts of liquified gas and coal (the latter from the US, I think)… and had in 2013 a $30B extra expenditure on gas alone…not to mention the fact that they have announced already that they won’t be able to meet the 2020 goal of emission reductions planned long time ago.
        All this with tens of nuclear power plants ready to go tomorrow. Totally crazy to say the least (IMO, of course).

        • Ben Elsworth says:

          I agree that the nuclear situation in Japan is crazy on several levels, but I also have a lot more sympathy than you do for the feelings of Japanese people. Nuclear radiation plays a sad part in their national psyche.

          Anyway it hardly changes the point – it’s a misconception that only the EU (and to a lesser extent the US) engages with renewables.

          “coal (the latter from the US, I think)”

          Australia is the main coal supplier to Japan and this has not changed in decades – LNG and HFO were the main compensating fuels after the Tsunami, together with demand reductions. You get some coking coal coming out of Vancouver, but I don’t think there are any other coal export terminals on the West coast of North America.

  5. Energy and mankind is very, very important to all human beings. We scientists should all emphasize that fact!

  6. An important fact to understand is that our use of energy, released primarily by chemical means, is beyond absurd.

    “A Cubic Mile of Oil” is a useful book to start with in understanding the absurdity that we’ve naively engaged in for a couple hundred years.

    A cubic mile of oil burned releases about 1/3 the energy we now use. But let’s stick with that cubic mile and use more understandable measures. A top athlete can deliver about `/2 horsepower for maybe half an hour. Let’s say he/she can do 340 Watts for 1/2 an hour. A Tesla S needs 340WHrs to propel it 1 mile on a level freeway.

    So, 2 top athletes working hard can move a Tesla Model S 1 mile on the freeway.

    A cubic mile of oil burned yields the kWHrs that 116 trillion top athletes can muster. So we could use 348 trillion athletes, pedalling generators 25/7, to provide our present, 3 cubic miles of oil equivalent.

    Well, we know that won’t work, since each athlete ca’;t even do 1/2 HP for an hour, so we give them breaks. sleep, etc.

    We thus need many many trillions of athletes just to deliver the power we now use, 24/7.

    But wait (as the ads say on TV), they need food. Oops.

    We’re about 7 billion now and we depend on the equivalent of some quadrillions of athletes to deliver our energy usage now. How many hundreds of thousands or millions of such athlete slaves do each of us presently depend on — slaves we’ve no room to house or feed?

    This brings the absurdity of our energy consumption into focus.

    It also illustrates how energy sources must be power dense, clean and environmentally benign. This is precisely why nuclear power is superior to all other choices. Of course, even a President understood that some time ago:

    • Euan Mearns says:

      The concept of energy slaves comes in part 3. The answer is 178 per OECD citizen. It is not the energy we use that is absurd but the 2/3 we waste from thermal sources. And always recall that US citizens, for example, use double the energy per capita than Danes.

      • roberto says:

        “It is not the energy we use that is absurd but the 2/3 we waste from thermal sources.”

        Sorry to say it, but this is not correct… it is not a “waste”, it is inevitable, a law of physics… there’s no way not to have “waste”, even with renewables. The danes, since you’ve mentioned here, use a lot less energy than US citizen also because they recuperate a large chunk of the “waste” heat of their CHP power stations… could do the same with most fossil fuel-powered devices…. it is simply cheaper not to do so, and therefore it is not done.

        • Euan Mearns says:

          Sorry to say it, but this is not correct… it is not a “waste”, it is inevitable, a law of physics…

          Sorry to say but I disagree 😉 A 30% efficient coal plant is better than a 20% efficient plant. A car that does 50 miles per gallon (sorry about my quaint imperialism) is better than one that does 30 and so on. But I do agree that some waste is inevitable.

          CHP – it is simply cheaper not to do so

          Is this really true? It may be cheaper to not do it, but still profitable to do it. Its maybe like flaring gas during oil production. It is often easier and cheaper to flare, but when mandated to do so, companies do make money out of collecting co-produced gas. I have always argued that CHP is a better solution than CCS – reduce emissions through using less not more coal.

  7. Graham Palmer says:

    Great post Euan, should be read by everyone, I’ve tried to get across a similar message on ABC Radio National Ockham’s Razor

  8. Graham Palmer says:

    This post is probably a good place to introduce Marchetti’s curves for those not already familiar. Luis’ old Oil Drum post gives a good overview.

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  10. Anteaus says:

    Humanity will eventually need to find an alternative for fossil fuels. In fact it would be better to find one before they run out, because oil and coal have other uses.Thew choice is between implementing one immedately -renewables- which only partially works, or concentrating our efforts on finding one that works better.

    The problem with choosing the gaffertape solution of wind and solar is that it sucks the funding out of energy generation research projects, thus taking the renewables route actually increases the risk of failing to find a proper replacement before the oilwells run dry. This could turn out to be a big mistake.

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