Energy and Mankind part 2

In this second part of my essay on Energy and Mankind I look into:

  • The origins of usable energy on Earth
  • Energy stores and energy flows in relation to human behaviour
  • Energy quality

Part 1 of the essay is here.

Origins of Usable Energy on Earth

All to often it is erroneously assumed that all of the energy on Earth is derived from the Sun. In fact, a significant portion is derived from the supernova precursor to our solar system. All of the heavy elements on Earth, including uranium and thorium, were created in that supernova which is, therefore, the parent of all nuclear power. Natural radioactivity, mainly from the decay of uranium and potassium isotopes, also gives rise to the heat within the Earth, the source of geothermal energy. This heat engine also drives plate  tectonics, without which we would have no mountains or hydroelectric power.

Figure 4 The Sun and the supernova precursor to our solar system combined provide most if not all the energy available on Earth that is used by Mankind and other animals and plants.

Tidal energy  is derived from the rotation of Earth on its axis and the orbits of the Earth-Moon and Earth-Moon-Sun systems. This angular momentum is also inherited from the condensation of matter from the Supernova. The periodicity of supernova energy flows is more regular and predictable than solar energy flows that are controlled by haphazard weather and in this regard tidal flows are much superior.

Solar energy comes in two main flavours, 1) fossil energy stores comprising the organic remnants of ancient plants and animals that have become concentrated into ore grade deposits by geological processes – coal, oil and natural gas, and 2) renewable energy flows – wind, wave and solar power. Hydroelectric power, the Rolls Royce of renewable energy, is unique in that land forms created by plate tectonics provide the stores (reservoirs) at elevation providing the gravitational potential energy to convert rain water to electricity.

Energy Stores and Energy Flows

The concepts of energy stores and energy flows are fundamental. From the outset, Stone Age Man used fire when it was needed, not when it was coincidentally available. This was made possible by the solar energy stored in wood. As human societies have evolved and become more complex, using energy when it is needed has become imprinted on individual behaviour and on society as a whole. Man has only rarely harnessed stochastic energy flows, for example sailing ships and drying hay and clothes. Human development is dominated by the use of energy stores. And herein lies the crux of the whole of today’s energy debate.

The pattern of human society’s energy use is best illustrated by the pattern of electricity demand. This varies from country to country. Figure 5 shows what it looks like in the UK. There are 3 major cycles 1) daily, 2) weekly and 3) annual. Over a 12 month period, peak demand is always going to be around 6pm on a weekday in winter and the minimum demand is always going to be around 6 am at the weekend in summer. In 2009, peak winter demand was 2.6 times greater than minimum summer demand. Figure 5 is a picture of human individual and societal behaviour. Our electricity delivery system, that underpins our health, wealth and prosperity, must have the reliability and flexibility to match this pattern of demand. This is achieved almost exclusively through use of a range of energy stores. The more I think about it, deliberately introducing expensive stochastic noise into this finely balanced system seems quite insane.

Figure 5 The pattern of electricity demand in the UK, January and July 2009. Note daily, weekly and annual cycles. This is a picture of human individual and societal behaviour. We sleep at night, we work less at weekends and we require more heating in winter time. The electricity grid is the foundation of our modern society and economy providing security and comfort at multiple levels. The grid must deliver the exact pattern of demand to sustain that level of security and comfort. It may one day be viewed as an act of vandalism to place a large, expensive source of stochastic noise on that finely balanced system.

Energy Quality

Figure 6 details a number of variables that combine to define the quality of various energy sources. What has happened in recent years is that Green lobby groups have persuaded everyone that environmental externalities trump all other aspects of energy quality which we will learn someday is a huge mistake. Especially since, renewable energy devices and their deployment are not without environmental externalities themselves.


Figure 6 8 different measures of energy quality are listed, These can be combined in different permutations to characterise the utility of different energy sources which will vary depending upon the use one has in mind. For example, natural gas is superior to gasoline in terms of energy density per Kg. But is not favoured as a transport fuel since its energy density per unit volume is much lower. The same applies to hydrogen. To compress these gasses to increase their volumetric energy density requires pressurised vessels, adding cost and increasing risk. A stochastic renewable source like wind only scores on the last three of the measures listed.

When I first became engaged in this energy debate it was from the angle of energy availability linked to the concept of peak oil. While there is an abundance of commentators who scoff at peak oil these are matched by those who still see global shortages (± catastrophe) around the corner. What happened in the period 2002 to 2008 was scarcity pushed up the price of oil. This higher price boosted supplies of expensive oil (albeit with time lags), reduced demand and encouraged efficiency. For those who cannot afford to fill their tank with gas, peak oil has already come and gone. Availability, scalability and cost are important considerations for any energy supply.

Last year I conceived and co-organised an energy conference in Edinburgh and in the opening address I used the history of naval warfare to illustrate the concept of energy quality (Figure 7). In 1911, Winston Churchill famously made the decision to convert the Royal Navy from coal to oil fired steam. He did this because oil offered many advantages over coal. It was more energy dense giving oil fired ships greater range and speed. And it could also be pumped through pipes, dispensing with the need for hundreds of stokers. On the negative side, the UK did not know then that it had indigenous oil supplies and this created a long term dependency of the UK on oil from the Middle East. Our superior navy would guarantee the security of these supplies. Chrchill did not give a toss about oil producing less CO2 than coal when it was burned. If Churchill was alive today (his grandson is, and made this speech to the Scottish Parliament) and was in charge of energy policy, what direction would he go in – wind or nuclear power?

Figure 7 A brief history of naval warfare and propulsion systems. The nuclear powered Nimitz class carrier is one of the most powerful weapons systems ever developed. 

The pinnacle of naval power was reached with nuclear powered Nimitz class aircraft carriers that fly oil powered jets and with nuclear powered Trident class submarines armed with nuclear weapons. It has been put to me before that modern wind turbines have little in common with their historic counterparts. But let’s be serious, would any sane person want to go up against the Nimitz or the Bissmark in a sail boat? Our electricity supplies are of even greater importance to our security than our navy. It makes no sense to hobble this with expensive, stochastic wind power.

An examination of the quality variables listed in Figure 6 shows that wind only scores on three points 1) scalability, 2) environment (depending on one’s perspective) and 3) ERoEI. I have said this many times before, grid-scale, affordable and efficient storage is a game changer for renewables. Nuclear scores on all 8 points with the possible exception of environment, again this depends on one’s perspective. Nuclear in fact has extremely high scores on measures such as 1) density, 2) storability, 3) intermittency and 4) availability. Wind was used in the 19th and preceding centuries when our demands were much less. In terms of energy quality, nuclear power is the only option to compete with oil and I hope this explains to some readers why I strongly favour nuclear power over wind.

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25 Responses to Energy and Mankind part 2

  1. roberto says:

    Energy/exergy resources anyone?

    Let’s not forget this excellent compendium:

  2. Kit P says:

    What is missing from the analysis is the technical term, power or the ability to do work. For example, warm water from the discharge of a steam plant has lots of energy that could be used to heat houses. However, the work to pump the water to the houses requires a source of power. I have often seen conversions of thermal energy to power without considering the thermal efficiency of the heat engine.

    Steam does work in a turbine that can be converted to electricity. Electricity can be used by a motor to turn a pump. These are all principles engineers learn. EROI is not one of those principles. It is a bogus term used by those who debate energy and do not understand thermodynamics in the context of doing work.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      What is missing from the analysis is the technical term, power or the ability to do work.

      That is a good point, it may not be missing entirely but it is not properly emphasised.

      EROI is not one of those principles. It is a bogus term used by those who debate energy and do not understand thermodynamics in the context of doing work.

      I disagree with you there and believe you are wrong. I do agree that EROI is not the sole or most important variable, but it is definitely one of a range of variables that needs to be taken into account. For ERoEI values over 7 then it doesn’t matter at all – I once produced a famous graph that showed why. But when you get below 7 it becomes a serious consideration. It is often masked by energy subsidies from high EROI sources like coal. When EROI approaches 1 then we are talking energy conversion not energy production.

      • Kit P says:

        What is big output and tiny footprint, easy to maintain, producing power for a very long time.
        Euan, what I am saying is that EROI is not a term used in industry, it is one used in energy debates to win an argument. Take corn ethanol for example. American corn farmers can produce more corn than the world needs as food. By processing some of the energy out of corn, the main product as protein for animal feed stores and transports better. There are a lots of very esteemed (not by me) college professors in places like California and New York trying to tell corn belt states why they should not grow corn. I went to Purdue U during the first energy crisis. My senior project was about helping corn farmers use less energy to dry corn.
        I am always interested in better ways to do things, EROI is not one of them.

  3. Roger Andrews says:


    I read Rupert Soames’ speech. He strikes me as a hard-headed, experienced and knowledgeable businessman who identifies the same basic problems with the rush to decarbonization as we and others do.

    But …

    He never stops to question why we are doing it. In fact he thinks decarbonization is a worthy goal. He believes “it’s a bad idea to keep on pumping billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere” because “doing so is likely to contribute to climate change”, but I’ll bet he’s never looked at the scientific evidence this belief is based on. He’s concerned about melting ice caps and rising sea levels flooding out his “house on the West Coast which is within a few feet of the High Water Mark” and I’ll bet he’s never looked at the scientific evidence this belief is based on either. He’s certainly unaware that at the current rate of sea level rise in Western Scotland (~1.5 mm/year) he would have to live to be about 800 to see the tide lapping around his front door.

    Which prompts the question; why is a hard-headed businessman who can cut so incisively through the crap on decarbonization prepared to swallow AGW hook, line and sinker without even bothering to check the facts? (unless of course he said what he said because he was disinclined to tell his audience what he really thought, which in a way makes it worse).

    Straight answer; I don’t know. But unquestioning acceptance of unproven theories is a disease that affects many, and it largely explains why after two centuries of reaping the benefits of fossil fuel energy mankind, or at least certain segments of it, is now being dragged around by the nose by three of them:

    1. Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is real (the warming has to be catastrophic to justify decarbonization; a degree or two isn’t enough). Not even the IPCC goes this far. There are also questions as to exactly how serious the impacts of AGW are. Mankind has been pouring CO2 into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and to the best of my knowledge there’s still no documented instance of anyone having been seriously harmed by it.

    Combined with:

    2. We are running out of fossil fuels. At some point in the future we’re bound to, but the concept of the world being on the point of running out of something dates back at least to Thomas Malthus (“the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”) and 200 years later the world still hasn’t run out of anything.

    And finally:

    3. Decarbonization will give us cheap, clean, reliable and everlasting sources of energy. And so it would, if we could do it. But the way we’re going about it the likely outcome will be lots of energy when we don’t need it and none at all when we do.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      Roger, its been a while since I watched the vid. Alex Salmond got up and left the chamber before he spoke. To your 3 points:

      1) Did he really play lip service to CAGW? He was looking to question the credibility of the 100% renewables policy. And in so doing, had he questioned the orthodoxy of AGW, he would have lost all credibility in current environment.

      2) We are running out of FF at an unkonwn rate. Oil remains critically ill, especially in countries like the UK. And in Mexico, once N2 injection into KMZ has worked its magic, it too will be in trouble until a new round of deep water discoveries come on. UK N Sea is in deeeeeeep ship, Chevron laying off 200+ staff today. This all boils down to EROI and thermodynamics but I see I have a job to do explaining this.

      3) Decarbonisation as a policy goal is of course bonkers. Like trying to genetically engineer humans that don’t need oxygen. Left to its own devices, our energy system will decarbonise going forward with nuclear and solar us front runners in the energy sources that are ADDED to the existing mix at a disproportionally high rate.

      • Euan:

        The following excerpt from a Guardian article suggests that Rupert Soames does in fact “believe” in CAGW:

        “The growth of developing economies in Africa, Asia and South America has accelerated global warming far beyond official predictions and it is developed nations that must act to halt the potentially catastrophic consequences … The warning ….. comes from Aggreko’s chief executive, Rupert Soames, who said: ‘The threat of global warming is far greater than people have previously thought …’”

        I’ll leave you to ponder the significance.

        On running out of fossil fuels, I remember a conversation between two oilmen that I overheard on a convention bus in Los Angeles over forty years ago. One of them was saying to the other: “Y’know, all we need is for the price of o’l to go from a buck eighty to two bucks fifty and then we could dig out all them o’l shales in Utah and Colorado at a profit.”

        Whatever happened to oil shale? Before shale gas came along it was the fuel of the future, with 4.8 trillion barrels of identified resources, enough to supply world consumption for about 150 years.

        • Euan Mearns says:

          Roger, Soames at the time was CEO of FOOTSIE company Aggreko – providing diesel powered, temporary generating equipment world wide. The thing I recall about his speech was the plea for nuclear power. Lets not forget that our energy policy is based on 100% renewables, zero nukes. Going beyond that to your Rugandian article from 2008 – I don’t know, apart from those working in power supply industry might say anything to support their financial case.

          Soames has recently moved on to new company SERCO – one which I know nothing about!

          And so to oil shale. Shale oil is a mature source rock that contains oil because the source rock has been buried to sufficient depth for sufficient time to generate oil from geothermal heat (radioactive heat from the supernova) to create oil that can be liberated by fracking. Oil shale contains the promise of oil in the form of kerogen that can be liberated from the rock by the application of what is probably more thermal energy than we would recover from the oil itself. So it comes back to ERoEI and thermodynamics. The tar sands have 0.3 units of nat gas going in for ever 1 of oil coming out. I’d guess for oil shale (not shale oil) it would be 2 going in for every 1 coming out. This math is reflected in today’s interest rates.

  4. Don’t neglect space based solar power (SBSP), Euan.

    Solar arrays in geosynchronous orbit (GSO) have powered microwave beams to Earth for decades. That’s what comsats do. In 1968, Peter Glaser suggested scaling this up by many orders of magnitude, so as to deliver electric power to the terrestrial utility grid. This idea has been studied quite thoroughly since, and no show-stoppers have been found. In fact, it is the only known form of solar power that has a realistic chance to compete on cost with fossil fuels. The basic reasons are that solar irradiance is 35% greater than on Earth, the sun never sets (except for brief outages around local midnight near the equinoxes), and no energy storage is needed for baseload power.

    The only real impediment to SBSP is that the whole concept boggles many minds. Making a serious contribution to world electric energy requires 3 times less solar array area than in terrestrial systems, but it still means deploying something like 50 square kilometers each year, with a mass of order 35,000 tonnes. Most people have been conditioned to think that spaceflight is inherently very expensive, but that is only because launches are infrequent and the rockets are expendable. Flight across the Atlantic would also be expensive if Boeing built only three 777s each year and the airline threw the plane away after every flight.

    The traffic to orbit implied by SBSP justifies reusable launch vehicles. The cost of the propellants for launch will add only about $200/kW to the cost of the system, and the energy they contain will add only 10 days to the energy payback time.

    This is a technology whose time has finally come.

    (Full disclosure: I worked for Peter Glaser in the late 1970s, and I have been an advocate ever since. I am currently chairman of the Solar High Study Group, which is a small team of senior aerospace types, mostly retired, working on the subject. See our website at for more details, and my paper on launch costs at )

    • Kit P says:

      Maybe Philip can answer a question for me. Why do people in the electronics (use of small amounts of power) think they have clue about producing large amounts of power? Philip needs to get himself invited to visit a 1200 MWe and walk around the turbine generator. Not a long walk, smaller than a supermarket but provides power to a million homes or one steel mill.
      Engineering is about the practical which I happen to find a lot more interesting than the hypothetical. Current nuke plants can provide all the power, and process steam for desalination that society needs. High temperature gas cooled reactors will be able to produce hydrogen for ammonia production and transportation fuel. Every new find of oil delays the need for a HTGCR prototype in the US.
      The reason I am not worried about energy is that I have a list of practical solutions. No reason to advocate impractical ones. If I am concern about anything in the future it is peak phosphorus.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      The only real impediment to SBSP is that the whole concept boggles many minds.

      Phil, including mine 😉 I guess we are likely to have contrasting views on Mans adventures into Space. I have developed the view, that may be totally wrong, that US space adventure was based on the pinnacle of net energy flows and surpluses from oil. That the space program in a way mirrors the real health of the US economy. The economy and money are a derivative of the real world that is founded on energy.

      However, I do accept your argument that making something routine would greatly reduce costs and that the space shuttle program was a decisive junction in US space activity – leading into a cul-de-sac. Creating something enormously complex and flimsy is perhaps comparable to the brave new world of solar and wind powered smart grids – expensive, flimsy and don’t work 100% of the time. I read with interest you analysis of the shuttle program.

      There are interesting lessons to learn from space, mountaineering and Antarctic expeditions about energy and logistics. Amundsen ate his dogs. Scott and colleagues died miles from their energy dump. In the UK we hear very little about the international space station. We don’t know why it is there, what the astronauts are doing – it seems like mainly housekeeping.

      Back to SBSP – you say irradiance in space is 35% greater than on Earth – is that true or a typo? I’d have thought a lot higher if it were to offer a significant advantage. The one problem that SBSP solves is intermittency but it seems to carry a myriad of additional problems such as maintenance issues, that ground based systems don’t have. Anyway, can you tell us how much energy it takes to lift 35,000 tonnes into geo stationary orbit and how much energy 50 sq kms / 35,000 tonnes of solar panels would generate in 1 year?

      • 50 sq km would generate about 7 GWe to the terrestrial grid, or 60,000,000,000 kWh/yr. The energy content of the rocket propellants (kerosene/LOX) to put 35,000 tones in low Earth orbit (LEO) is c. 1,400,000,00o kWh, or 2.3% of the annual energy output. In other words, it takes c. 8 days for the system to generate the energy needed to launch it. Once the powersat has been built in LEO. it can provide its own power for electric propulsion up to GSO.

        The ERoEI of terrestrial solar has improved considerably. In the best terrestrial locations, the energy payback time is now quoted as somewhere between 6 months and 1 year. Because of the greater power output/sq.m., the payback time for the energy invested in manufacturing a powersat is 2 to. 3 months. The energy for launch adds c. 8 days.

        The conclusion is that the ERoEI for SBSP is considerably better than for terrestrial solar.

        This is not an appropriate forum in which to argue the merits of the extraterrestrial enterprise, so I shall desist.

        • A C Osborn says:

          One of the biggest drawbacks with Satellite Generated Electricity using microwave transfer to earth is the ability to use it as a mass destruction weapon.
          Aim it at a City and see what happens.

    • Roger Andrews says:

      “…. solar irradiance is 35% greater (in space) than on Earth, the sun never sets (except for brief outages around local midnight near the equinoxes), and no energy storage is needed for baseload power.”

      A solar panel in geostationary orbit will generate 24/7 power only if it has tracking capability. Otherwise it will get an average of 12 hours of incident sunlight a day, the same as an earthbound fixed panel.

      Likewise with energy storage. Unless your arrays are trackers they will generate most power during daytime in summer when electricity demand in many parts of the world is at a minimum and none on cold winter nights during peak demand periods. Very large amounts of storage would be needed to balance out these seasonal fluctuations.

      So am I right in assuming that the proposed arrays will be trackers? I ask because I can’t find any mention of whether they are or not in the links you provided.

      Or do you propose double-sided arrays, i.e. with panels pointing in opposite directions?

  5. Kit P, the optimal output from a powersat to the grid is 2,000 MWe, rather more than that from most nuclear power plants. We don’t need to get into a silly contest about whose engineering discipline deals with more power – but if you insist…

    If you want to see what real power is like, it’s a pity you can no longer attend a launch of a Saturn V. The propellant turbopumps alone consumed 200 MW, and at full throttle the 5 F-1 engines developed 60,000 MW, which is 65% of the present total electric generating capacity of the UK. Nowadays you will have to make do with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which is scheduled to fly next year. Its engines only generate 35,000 MW.

    There is no reason to think that SBSP and nuclear power are mutually exclusive. The real contest is between those who think that ample cheap energy is a prerequisite for a decent world, and the jihadists and the neo-Luddites and the shamans of the Church of Global Warming, who all seem to think that returning to medieval misery is somehow progress.

    I am not an expert on the subject, but I hope that one of the Gen IV fast reactor concepts works out, because (1) it gets much more energy per kg of uranium, greatly expanding the resource base; (2) it burns up the long-lived actinides, avoiding the waste storage problems; and (3) it can improve security by keeping the whole process within the power plant.

    One of the advantages of SBSP is that it will reduce the cost of space launch by orders of magnitude, and thereby give us access to all the resources of the solar system. I would also like to see much more funding for the promising work on aneutronic inertial electrostatic confinement proton-boron fusion, which could solve energy problems forever, — and also give us the galaxy.

    • Kit P says:

      How much electric power has Saturn V or powersat produced? The answer is zero.
      “mutually exclusive”
      Coal and nuclear power are not mutually exclusive. Both are practical ways of producing base load electric power.
      “real contest”
      It is not a contest is a 27/7/365 job. The contest is not between energy sources, think of it as a team sport. It is not about writing interesting articles in journals for your buddies. It is a public service. Phillip do know what a public service is?
      Food, water, and energy are needs that we all depend on. Jobs in these industries are not glamorous. Keeping the cost down is a prerequisite for a decent world. While I am not demeaning the space exploration industry and its contribution to the world we live in. I am just wondering why those in it would think they have something to offer those who have made a career in the power sector.

  6. clivebest says:

    Plate tectonics is needed to support life on earth. All the oxygen in the atmosphere is because some carbon extracted by photosynthesis from CO2 has been buried underground. The minerals needed for life are recycled through subduction and volcanic activity. Otherwise life would run out of raw materials. The explosion of 20% Oxygen content of the atmosphere with tiny CO2 levels coincides with the evolution of plants and animals made possible by Cyanobacteria. It is an incredible fact that the earth’s climate is governed by life and plate tectonics.

    Humans burning of fossil fuels makes an insignificant impact on oxygen levels but a short term change in CO2 levels. Natural feedbacks will always stablise the climate whatever we do because the carbon cycle acts as a thermostat. This will continue for at least another billion years so long as enough geothermal energy remains to drive plate tectonics and photosynthesis continues.

    source: OXYGEN – A four billion year history. Prof. Donald Canfield

  7. A C Osborn says:

    Euan, Christopher Booker has an article in the Telegraph about the latest UK Off Shore Wind Farm to be given the go ahead. It is here

    One of the Commenters called “BarkingAtTreehuggers” points to a paper about 2014 German power production which has some interesting information. The paper is here

    What is of interest is how much investment has been made in Solar and Wind Energy, (no actual values given), but total Capicity is, along with the power generated.
    The breakdown is as follows
    Installed Capacity
    Nuclear = 12.068Gw (probably not being used)
    Brown Coal = 21.247Gw
    Hard Coal = 26.340Gw
    Gas = 28.241Gw
    Wind = 33.688Gw
    Solar = 36.858Gw
    Hydro = 5.607Gw
    Biomass = 7.537Gw
    So we have
    FF Total = 87.896Gw
    Renewable = 83.69Gw
    Solar & Wind only = 70.546Gw
    Biomass & Hydro = 13.144Gw


    Wind + Solar = 45TWh at 17% of total production
    Hydro + Biomass = 36TWh at 14% of total production
    FF = 184TWh at 69% of total production

    As we know preference is given to Renewables in Germany so we have
    Solar + Wind with 41% of installed capacity producing only 17% of generation
    Whereas Biomass + Hydro with only 8% of installed capacity producing 14% of generation
    And that leaves the non preferrential FFs with 51% of installed capacity producing 69% of generation probably without the use of Nuclear.

    What could possibly be wrong with that picture Investment wise I wonder.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      AC – thanks for links. I’ll put them in today’s blowout. The FF capacity could and would produce more if it weren’t for the merit order. But they are also providing the load balance service. This comes back to the parasitic wind post I wrote a while back.

    • Euan Mearns says:

      I’ve been wanting to look into the accounts of UK wind operators to see what they look like. Just not enough time. It would be pretty ironic if they all go tits up. Had a look at the Fraunhofer pdf, so much in there, it deserves a post, esp the amount of electricity they export, Roger?

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