I just read (skimmed) a book entitled Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper by Robert Bryce. It provides an illuminating history of many of the most influential and amazing technologies and innovations throughout the history of mankind. But the last section of the book is dedicated to energy technology, business and policy. Thus, for those of you doing Team Policy in NCFCA I have compiled some notes from that section (as well as some other sources) that may help you in your research/argumentation.
Note from the Ethos editor: This book presents a pragmatic perspective bolstered in many places by facts, but it does tend to lean Conservative and is one of many perspectives on energy and energy policy; as with most topics, it is important to consider a variety of perspectives, so definitely keep this in mind while you read on.
Humans have limitless ingenuity at innovating
- “In 1929, the economic historian Abbott Payson Usher wrote: ‘The limitations of resources are relative to the position of our knowledge and our technique.’ He continued, explaining that the perceived limits of available resources ‘recede as we advance, at rates that are proportionate to the advance in our knowledge’” (179).
- “It was Thomas Edison who brought us electricity, not the Sierra Club. It was the Wright brothers who got us off the ground, not the Federal Aviation Administration. It was Henry Ford who ended the isolation of millions of Americans by making the automobile affordable, not Ralph Nader. Those who have helped the poor the most have not been those who have gone around loudly expressing ‘compassion’ for the poor, but those who found ways to make industry more productive and distribution more efficient, so that the poor of today can afford things that the affluent of yesterday could only dream about.” – Thomas Sowell
Some failed predictions (180)
“Energy transitions span generations and not, microprocessor-like, years or even months: there is no Moore’s law for energy systems. Keep this in mind when you read yet another of the casually tossed-off claims about a continent to be electrified by wind or fueled by crop-derived ethanol by 2020 or 2025” (https://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~vsmil/pdf_pubs/oecd.pdf). Consider this principle historically:
- In 1914, the US Bureau of Mines predicted the world’s oil supplies would be depleted in 10 years;
- In 1939, the US Department of the Interior predicted global oil supplies would be fully depleted in 13 years, based on their assessment of the world’s known oil reserves at that time;
- In 1946, the US State Department predicted America would face an oil shortage in 20 years and would be forced to increase oil imports from the Middle East;
- In 1951, the Interior Department predicted global oil reserves would be depleted in 13 years;
- In 1972, the Club of Rome predicted the world would be out of oil and natural gas by 1992 and 1993 respectively;
- In 1974 Paul and Anne Ehrlich predicted that “within the next quarter of a century mankind will be looking elsewhere than in oil wells for its main source of energy”;
- In 1977, John O’Leary, the administrator of the Federal Energy Administrator, told Congress that “it must be assumed that domestic natural gas supplies will continue to decline”;
And the list goes on.
In contrast, we can review some facts:
- In 2011, proven global oil reserves were at 1.6 trillion barrels, increasing by 130% from 1980;
- In 2012, US natural gas production averaged 69 billion cubic feet per day, a 33% increase from 2005.
Oil and gas dominate for a reason
A. Incentives for Innovation
- Energy companies must innovate to survive: “The convergence of several technologies ranging from better drill bits and seismic techniques to robotic rigs and nanotechnology are allowing the oil and gas sector to produce ever-increasing quantities of energy at lower cost. Furthermore, those technical advances are being deployed by an industry that is spending enormous sums every year to find, refine, and transport the fuel that the world’s consumers demand” (174).
- “In 2012, global spending on oil and gas drilling totaled more than $1.2 trillion. About a quarter of that amount, roughly $300 billion per year, is being spent drilling wells in the United States” (174). So America alone spends just as much drilling oil and gas wells as the entire rest of the world is spending on “clean energy.”
- Between 1949 and 2011, the percentage of dry wells dropped from 34% to 11% (174).
- In 2007, it took Devon Energy 57 days to drill an average well in the Cana Woodford Shale. In 2012, it took just 30 days.
- Shale gas revolution in the US has done more to cut C02 emissions than all of the government-mandated programs in Europe (natural gas emits 50% less CO2 than coal) (242).
B. Energy density (183)
- Energy density is the amount of energy produced per mass (e.g., kilogram) of some energy source. Consider the energy density of the following:
- Jet fuel produces about 43 megajoules (million joules) per kilogram.
- Low-enrichment uranium produces 3.9 terajoules (trillion joules) per kilogram.
- Lithium-ion batteries produces 540,000 joules per kilogram.
- A Boeing 737 fully fuelled holds 26,000 liters of jet fuel, which is about 26% of the plane’s weight, whereas a Boeing 737 that replaced its jet fuel with lithium-ion batteries would “require a battery pack that weighs about 21 times as much as the airplane itself.”
C. Estimated cost per megawatt for generation plants entering service in US in 2018 (in USD)
- Solar thermal: 261.5
- Wind (offshore): 221.5
- Solar photovoltaic: 144.3
- Biomass: 111.0
- Nuclear: 108.4
- Coal: 100.1
- Hydroelectric: 90.3
- Geothermal: 89.6
- Wind (onshore): 86.6
- Natural gas: 65.
- Lithium-ion batteries can easily catch fire if overcharged or discharged too rapidly. Lead acid batteries contain neurotoxin and can explode or catch fire.
- Cheaper batteries would have so many benefits, including:
- Compensating for the intermittency of wind and solar energy;
- Reducing fuel and electricity costs;
- Reducing energy transportation costs;
- Allowing millions of households and businesses, especially in poor countries, to access electricity;
- Increasing the reliability of the supply of electricity in many places around the world;
- Contributing tens of billions of dollars in economic value.
- Wind energy generally does not have enough energy density: Replacing all coal-fired capacity with wind energy would require a land area about the size of Italy.
- It kills hundreds of thousands of bats, birds and eagles annually.
(The sheer insanity of) biofuels
From T.A. “Ike” Kiefer, a US Navy Captain: “Imagine if the US military developed a weapon that could threaten millions around the world with hunger, accelerate global warming, incite widespread instability and revolution, provide our competitors and enemies with cheaper energy, and reduce America’s economy to a permanent state of recession. What would be the sense and the morality of employing such a weapon? We are already building that weapon–it is our biofuels program” (“Energy insecurity: the false promise of liquid biofuels”, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 2013).
- Because ethanol competes with agricultural land for food, it causes the price of food to rise. The ethanol mandates could have caused the price of corn to rise by 39%, rice by 21%, and wheat by 22%. If global biofuels mandates were eliminated, corn prices could drop by 20% (Mark W Rosegrant of the International Food Policy Research Institute, 230-231).
- From Rosegrant again: “If the current biofuel expansion continues, calorie availability in developing countries is expected to grow more slowly; and the number of malnourished children is projected to increase” (231).
- “Since 2004 biofuels from crops have almost doubled the rate of growth in global demand for grain and sugar and pushed up the yearly growth in demand for vegetable oil by around 40 percent. Even cassava is edging out other crops in Thailand because China uses it to make ethanol” (Searchinger, June 16, 2011 article in Scientific American).
- Biofuels are using 100 million hectares (nearly twice the size of France or half of all American cropland) to provide less than one-half of 1% of world energy needs (232).
- Sugarcane field workers in Brazil face “”low wages, inhumane work hours, nearly nonexistent accomodations, and work conditions that approach slavery,” and there are similar accounts in Colombia, Cameroon, and India (Ziegler, Betting on Famine: Why the World Still Goes Hungry, 187-93).
In summary, we can read from Ziegler: “biofuels are catastrophic for society and the global climate… On a planet where a child under age ten dies of hunger every five minutes, to hijack land used to grow food crops and to burn food for fuel constitutes a crime against humanity” (233).
Nuclear energy (is the future)
- The “energy density of uranium enriched to 4.5 percent and used in a nuclear reactor is roughly 87,000 times that of gasoline” (248).
- Nuclear energy technology is in its infancy, by historical standards. Marco Polo reported seeing oil used for lighting near Baku. Petroleum was used to light street lamps in Poland in the 1500s. Natural gas lit a courthouse in Stockton, CA in 1854. Solar photovoltaic energy device was first introduced in 1854. Humans have been burning wood ever since we knew how to make fire. But the first commercial nuclear plant was Calder Hall in Britain in 1956 (249).
- Despite much media hype about the Fukushima Dai incident, as of 2019 it seems there has only been one death specifically attributed to direct radiation effects—and that death was in late 2018. That particular earthquake was 700 times as powerful as the Haiti 2010 earthquake and the 5th most powerful on Earth since 1900—so powerful it shifted the position of Earth’s axis by about 17cm (252). Because of this, George Monbiot wrote a column in the Guardian saying that “Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.”
- Companies are developing small modular reactors, molten salt reactors, integral fast reactors, thorium-fueled reactors, traveling wave reactors and many more to increase efficiency, lower costs, and lower risk.
Ultimately, I could continue talking about these details, but for now I’ll leave it there. I hope this helps you in your research argumentation!