If you look back at the history of Energy and Mankind, in 1950, nuclear power was the energy source of the future. The only power source that could not just rival FF but was superior to it. The future has not yet arrived and we need to hope that it has not been cancelled altogether.
My essay on Energy and Mankind grew to over 5000 words. In this the third and final part I look into:
- The concept of energy slaves
- Past energy transitions
- No such thing as a free lunch in the energy world
Early in the development of human society, Man discovered that if “he” could harness the work of others “he” could live in greater comfort than living by the sweat of his own brow. Slavery has been an endemic part of human society for thousands of years, as rife today as at any time in the past. The trouble with slaves is they need to be fed and cared for and over the centuries Man subsequently learned to use draft animals to work fields, to haul timber or carriages and to use early machines to harness the natural energy flows of wind and water. A man with a horse and plough could, theoretically, do the work of 21 men (Figure 8) and this laid the foundation of harnessing energy to create a food surplus in society. It was no longer necessary for everyone to work at tending fields or gathering fire wood creating time for individuals to engage in other activities: the soldier, the merchant, the teacher the scholar and so forth. Throughout the second millenium AD wood still provided most of the energy used by Man for heat and for cooking and material for construction of buildings and ships (Figure 9). But trouble was brewing. Mankind’s success and mastery over his environment was leading to ever-greater numbers of Men (and women) putting pressure on the supplies of trees upon which prosperity was based.
Then, in the 19th Century, European and North American Man began to become increasingly dependent upon coal (Figure 9) that was added to wood (biomass) as a source of heat and energy. Coal provided the power for the industrial revolution being used also to smelt iron ore giving rise to the age of great metal machines. Some landmark dates and events are 1) Watts rotational steam engine in 1781, 2) the Bessemer Process for smelting iron in 1855, 3) 1870s the internal combustion engine, 4) the first electricity grids in the early 20th Century and 5) 1903 the Wright Brothers powered flight.
Figure 8 Often maligned by some, I still feel this calculation is a worthwhile exercise to give us a handle on the amount of useful work fossil fuels do on our behalf. The calculation begins on the premise that an average Man can work continuously with a power output of 35W for 8 hours. This is then compared to the power outputs of a horse and a 200 horse power tractor. I then go on to compare the “work” of a man with the energy content of oil. It turns out that 23.5 g of oil provides the same energy as a man working for 8 hours. Finally, I look at the average energy consumption of OECD citizens (4.7 tonnes oil equivalent per year, including nuclear and hydro) and conclude that every man woman and child living in the OECD has the equivalent of 178 “energy slaves” doing work on their behalf every day of the year.
In the course of the 20th Century, the citizens of what was destined to become the OECD witnessed a colossal rise in their energy consumption and living standards. Agriculture is one area that has experienced a vast transformation under FF powered industrialisation providing cheap and plentiful food for a burgeoning population. This has come at the cost of spreading obesity and environmental destruction under the wheels of gigantic 200 horse power machines.
Progressive mechanisation meant that fewer and fewer were engaged in food production and could therefore be engaged elsewhere in manufacturing, health service, education and care for the growing numbers of elderly. Virtually all of the surplus time and human labour in our society is derived from the energy surpluses provided by FF combined with the machines we have invented to convert FF to useful work. An individual may now spend the first 24 years of his or her life in education and may still expect to retire aged 65 working for only 41 years out of a life that will likely be well over double that long. We may actually work for only 37.5 hours per week for 46 weeks per year giving a lifetime total of 70,725 hours of work out of a total 745,110 hours of life, if we live to 85. OECD Man has therefore learned to sustain a long life by only working for 10% of the time available. This has only been made possible by FF doing huge amounts of work on our behalf.
In 2010, when I made the graphic displayed as Figure 8, every OECD citizen used the equivalent of 4.7 tonnes of oil per year. The calculation is an attempt to illustrate how many human slaves we would require to do this amount of work for us and the answer is 178. This idea is borrowed from Richard Heinberg’s book The Party’s Over. Others have done this calculation and come up with similar numbers. In essence every man, woman and child living in the OECD has the equivalent of 178 energy slaves doing work on their behalf every year of their lives. That is why we can spend a quarter of our life at school and another quarter in retirement. Pensions and social services are all founded on the energy surpluses of FF.
Not only do FF do physical work for us in the fields but they also provide the feedstock for fertilizer and pesticides that have resulted in enormous gains in crop yields. FF pay for irrigation and for the education of scientists who develop disease resistant high yielding strains of crops. They pay for transportation of crops to processing plants, they pay for the processing plants and their operation, they pay for the operators and ultimately they pay for the transportation of food to market, refrigeration and for our journey to the store to purchase food.
Renewable energy flows have contributed little if anything at all to the bounty that flows from modern agriculture and other industrial processes and it is unlikely they ever will. Politicians and Green lobby groups who believe we can dispense with fossil fuels in the near term in favour of renewable energy flows are deluded. The mirage of renewable success in countries like Denmark and Germany is just that, a mirage created by the heat of FF (and nuclear power) that still powers those and neighbouring countries upon which they depend to balance their grids. I will say it again, grid scale, efficient and affordable energy storage transforms the future prospect of renewable energy flows by converting them to renewable energy stores.
In 1830 Mankind got most of his energy from biomass, i.e. wood burned in open fires and stoves used for cooking. Biomass is just as important today throughout the developing world. Coal was added during the 19th Century and oil and natural gas during the 20th Century followed by hydro and nuclear power (Figure 9). New renewables are still too insignificant to register at the global scale. The global economy as we know it and all of the infrastructure was built using FF during the 19th and 20th Centuries. One problem facing certain new cities is that they may have been built in poor locations. For example, Los Angeles may have had a clement climate when the city was founded but as natural climate cycles cause weather patterns to shift, a city like Los Angeles may find itself short of water.
Figure 9 Data from BP, Colin Campbell and Vaclav Smil compiled by Rembrandt Koppelaar. It shows the history of energy transitions for almost 200 years. The most important observation is that “energy transition” is additive and not replacive at a global scale. Politicians who aim to replace the existing energy system with one based on new renewables, such as the Scottish and Danish governments, are setting a course into uncharted waters, against the flow of human evolution.
The current energy debate is focussed on the desire by many governments to “decarbonise” their energy systems, which means abandoning FF upon which we owe our whole industrialised existence. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is dangled out there as a false decarbonising promise that will allow us to continue to burn coal.
Past energy transitions have taken place organically, driven by society, economics and thermodynamics. We began to burn coal because it offered advantages over wood. It was more energy dense, more abundant and presumably cheaper than wood. Oil was added to the mix as Man embraced the mobility offered by automobiles and aeroplanes and the Navy embraced the tactical advantages oil offered over coal. Oil is the pinnacle fuel for transportation. Natural gas got added to the mix because it offered significantly more comfort for home heat than an open coal fire. I can still recall sitting in a freezing cold house in Kirriemuir in the 1960s, a coal fire blazing, face burning, bum freezing. Smoke getting blown back into the room. Being asked by my mother to go fetch coal from the dark coal shed. Many of us now take gas fired central heating and warm homes for granted. We switched from coal to gas heating because gas became available and was clearly better. It was also much cleaner burning.
Hydroelectric power got added to the mix in many countries in the post-war years because it was cheap and controllable renewable energy. And nuclear was added in some cases for military reasons but in many countries that lacked indigenous supplies of fossil fuels (Sweden, Finland, France, Japan and S Korea) it was added out of necessity. It is true that the benefits of nuclear power over other electricity sources such as coal, are still being weighed.
Past energy transitions have always moved towards new energy sources where the new offer clear advantages to the old. But, importantly, the new energy sources have always been added to and not replaced what went before. The use of biomass has continued to grow since 1830, to the detriment of our forests, and the use of coal has continued to grow ever since it was introduced. The use of natural gas has continued to grow. Use of oil alone has stagnated since 2005. Not because we have fallen out of love with travelling, but because scarcity has sent the price higher putting travel beyond the budgets of many. Looming scarcity of all fossil fuels that may send their prices higher this century should be the main focus of OECD energy policies. But instead, the main metric of energy strategy today is CO2 emissions reduction, sending already high energy prices higher. Never before has Mankind embarked upon an energy strategy where the comfort and well being of the population was not centre stage. I know the argument goes that catastrophic climate change puts human populations and the economy at risk. What if it doesn’t happen? What if come 2050, the N hemisphere is gripped by a new cold, with wind turbines shattered on hill sides? Why have governments chosen flimsy and unreliable wind over robust nuclear power?
The new energy transition is being driven by politics and in particular Green politics. The new international sport is bidding for the highest CO2 reduction targets and levels of renewable energy penetration. Most of those involved do not know what energy is let alone how important it is to have affordable supplies delivered to individuals and companies when they most need it. Those leading the pack with 100% renewables targets in the near future – Scotland, Denmark and Germany – have not studied the implications of their strategies on the needs of people and society. Or if they have done, these studies have been conducted by the renewables advocates. A simple case of lunatics in charge of the asylum. Alternative strategies have not been considered. Hence we hear that “unexpected difficulties are being encountered”. “It has not been so easy as we assumed”. Someone has simply declared that renewable energy is clean, good and cheap and that we should aim to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources and they have been believed. This overlooks the fact that FF have given us everything that we have.
No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
In the energy world, there is no such thing as a free lunch. If we want to enjoy the benefits and comfort of 178 energy slaves working for us 24/7 then we have to accept the costs that go along with those benefits. From the felling of the first trees to make way for agriculture, that produced building timbers and firewood, Man began to leave scars on his environment. It was found that burning coal left a lesser scar on the natural environment but then air pollution began to choke our cities (see Dundee images below). That problem was solved by moving power stations outside of cities and replacing coal with gas for home heat. We are now taking the wrecking ball to these same power stations at the behest of our Green European masters.
Fossil fuel production tends to have a small footprint but leaves a gigantic imprint on our atmosphere. Since we began to burn coal, CO2 has increased from 0.026%v to 0.04%v of the atmosphere with as yet totally unconstrained consequences. The Arctic sea ice canary is refusing to die. Whilst it seems inevitable that 7 billion souls must impact Earth’s climate and more critically a myriad of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the impact on climate to date looks increasingly benign. As time passes the failure of OECD government policies to control global emissions and the failure of increased emissions to raise global temperatures will appear increasingly asinine.
The costs of energy systems need to be weighed against their benfits. And so, looking at hydroelectric power, the environmental impact is immediate and transparent and sometimes severe. But in building a hydroelectric dam we are building a structure that will provide power when it is needed for many decades. The benefits are huge compared to the cost. The trouble with new renewables is that the benefits are not nearly as transparent. Roof top solar in sunny climates may indeed have minimal to zero environmental impact and may produce useful electricity during the day when it is needed most. But roof top solar in Scotland, where the Sun seldom shines, is likely to be a heavily subsidised waste of time and energy. Its deployment is down to nothing more than ritualistic following of renewable energy and climate dogma that seem to go hand in hand.
Of the new renewables, deployment of wind turbines is the most controversial. Large swathes of countryside are being converted into industrial power generation complexes. There are arguments for and against wind and if your life has been blighted by the construction of a power station on your door step then the negative impacts no doubt weigh heavily. But we live in a democracy that caters to the benefits of the many city dwellers and damn the costs since these fall to the few who live in the country. The trouble with wind in addition to the environmental blight is that it generates energy when the wind blows, not when we need it. And so, while the environmental costs are transparent, the benefits are less so. A cynical view is that wind simply adds noise to our grid that costs a lot of money to smooth out. More on that subject later this week.
And so to nuclear power. It has a tiny footprint and provides power 24/7, well at least for 90% of the time. Civilian nuclear power has yet to kill anyone globally. Look at fatal accidents linked to wind power, normalise for useful energy produced, and you will see the shocking safety record that the wind industry has, although these statistics are not straightforward to interpret. The radiation hazards associated with nuclear accidents are not to be trivialised but appear to have been greatly exaggerated. If you look back at the history of Energy and Mankind, in 1950, nuclear power was the energy source of the future. The only power source that could not just rival FF but was superior to it. The future has not yet arrived and we need to hope that it has not been cancelled altogether.
Sailing ships in Dundee harbour about 1888. Dundee was known for Jute, Journalism and Jam. The ships were likely importing Jute from India. My father, grandfather and great grandmother all worked in textile weaving. During the mid-19th century this was linen produced from locally grown flax. This was subsequently replaced by jute imported from India. Image source.
Dundee in 1900, smoke stacks all over the city, not much wind to blow away the smog. Image source.
Dundee in c 1892 (that is only 122 years ago), no cars, no trams and few people. Image source.
One for the Met Office. The Tay railway bridge was opened in 1877. In 1879, persistent hurricane force winds blew down the bridge while a train was crossing with the loss of 74 lives. Image source.
Dundee today. The railway bridge was rebuilt but the picture shows the road bridge that was opened in 1966. It doesn’t look windy out and so one has to presume the power is coming from nearby coal fired Longannet and nuclear Torness power stations. Image source.