Energy -- Eric R. Pianka


© Eric R. Pianka

"The future is green energy, sustainability, renewable energy
-- Arnold Schwarzenegger"

One of the many symptoms of the human overpopulation crisis is that we are facing serious energy limitations. People need to understand more about energy. Most people seem to think that we just need more, more, more. Our voracious and insatiable appetite for energy is doing us in. Americans are now suffering from painful increases in the cost of gasoline at the pumps with no end in sight. People are clamouring for alternative new sources of energy. Many, including our leaders, seem to think that we do not have to obey laws of thermodynamics. Using energy always produces heat, and unless it can be dissipated, temperatures must rise. Actually, we will have to learn to live more frugally using much less energy.

Two distinct kinds of energy sources exist: renewable versus non-renewable sources. Solar and wind energy is renewable, but fossil fuels are finite and are quickly being used up. Although some fools delude themselves into thinking that oil replenishes itself deep in the Earth, it does not. Unfortunately, humans have become very dependent upon fossil fuels because they are portable, concentrated, and easily stored and transported. One gallon of gasoline will move a car weighing over a ton twenty or thirty miles. Other energy sources, such as sun and wind are not nearly as versatile. A wealthy Texan drives a Tesla all-electric car with the vanity license plate "NO CO2" -- little does he know that the electric energy, he plugs his slick car into, is generated by burning fossil fuel.

As human populations burgeon and economies grow, demand for limited supplies has driven up the price of oil. An important facet is energy return on investment (EROI). In the 1930s, oil gushed out of wells under artesian pressure and EROI was around 100:1. By 1970, EROI had dropped to about 30:1, but today domestic oil must be pumped out from depths at considerable cost and EROI has fallen to about 10:1. A minimum EROI above the breakeven point of one is necessary for civilization to endure. Gasohol and tar sands are two examples of energy sources that fall below this minimal EROI threshold. More energy is actually required to produce a gallon of ethanol than is returned when it is burned! Prohibitively huge amounts of energy will be needed to extract fossil fuel from the now infamous Canadian tar sands.

Some pseudo-scientists under the payroll of big oil assert that oil and natural gas supplies are adequate to get us through to the end of 2100, but no one knows how long dwindling supplies will last in the face of peak oil and rapidly increasing worldwide demand. Vast reserves of coal exist, but so-called "clean coal" is just another oxymoron. Burning coal produces large amounts of pollutants and greenhouse gases. The future impact of global warming is coming up on us very fast (Heinberg 2003, Oreskes and Conway 2014).

Because people have electrical outlets all over their houses and offices, they suffer from the illusion that electricity is clean energy, infinite in supply and will always be there. None of these assumptions is true -- unless we convert to an electrical system based on renewable resources such as solar energy, power grids must ultimately fail and the internet will cease to be. Whenever you turn on a light or an air conditioner, chances are that coal or methane is being burned to generate the electricity you're using. A relatively small amount of electricity is generated by other sources such as by wind, hydro-electric, and/or solar energy. When you turn on a light, you are usually releasing solar energy captured by plants millions of years ago -- essentially, you are being illuminated by fossil sunlight that fell on the Earth long ago before humans even existed. Unfortunately, electricity is difficult to store and usually must be used immediately. Battery technology to improve our ability to store electric energy has been painfully slow.

Grandfather clocks are powered by gravity. Pulling the weight up provides power that is generated over a much longer time period as it slowly falls.

The great Dr. Jay Wright Forrester, a professor at MIT, grew up in rural Nebraska. While he was still in high school, Forrester rigged up a wind powered 12-volt DC electrical system using a windmill and an automobile generator. Essentially, the wind turned the generator. But, what to do when the wind didn't blow? Inspired by a grandfather clock, Forrester came up with a solution: when the wind DID blow, it lifted a heavy weight, then when it was calm, the weight fell by gravity turning the generator and switching polarity. Dr. Forrester invented "system dynamics" and won the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Medal of Honor in 1972.

One of the big problems with wind power is its intermitancy. Electricity is difficult to store. Battery technology has been slow and is both inefficient and limited. We could exploit grandfather clock technology on a massive scale to store excess energy during times of plenty for use later when electricity is needed, as follows:

Energy could be stored by laying rails going down on a hillside -- when excess energy is available, use it to pull up something heavy like an old locomotive. When the wind stops blowing it would turn over a DC generator as it fell back down. These giant "gravity batteries" wouldn't even have to be close to the wind turbines but could be many miles away. This same mechanism has been used to pump water uphill during periods of excess wind energy, which is then reclaimed later as hydroelectric power.

We need to convince people, especially politicians, of the importance of being proactive and using the last of our diminishing oil reserves to invest in infrastructure, especially electricity grids and railways. We should also develop and install green technologies, such as solar water heating systems as well as photovoltaic and wind turbine driven electrical generating plants.

Converting to a solar-powered electrical energy system would greatly reduce carbon emissions from the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels. Switching over to renewable sources of energy (wind and sun) would also make our electrical grid system more stable and reliable in the future. However, switching over to renewable energy is not nearly as simple and easy as many people might hope (Oreskes 2014, Foss, 2012): if all humans stopped burning fossil fuels entirely right now, the planet will continue to warm for some decades. Earth simply cannot support all 7+ billion of us, certainly not in the energy-consuming life style in which we'd all like to live.

Politicians are quick to promise energy solutions, but always by the year 2020 or 2050, too far into the future to alleviate pressing present problems. Moreover, they adamantly ignore the underlying causal problem: too many people. To keep spirits up, politicians and corporations invent and exploit expressions like "sustainable growth," "sustainable development," and "clean energy." People do not analyze these expressions, but prefer blissful ignorance vis-a-vis their meaning. However, stringing such antonyms together merely creates irresponsible oxymorons. Most people remain in a state of massive denial, impervious and oblivious to the impending crisis.

Of course, humans are clever, so clever that we have actually figured out how to turn matter into energy by exploiting fission and fusion. Many people think that an unlimited supply of energy is therefore available. Nuclear energy may be virtually limitless, but it carries serious environmental hazards (particularly thermal pollution and radioactive waste). A few engineers see infinite energy prospects in beaming more solar energy from outer space to the planet's surface. A Japanese company is actually proposing to capture solar energy on the moon and transmit it to Earth. People just don't get it! Access to unlimited energy would lead to our downfall.

Bottom line: Burning fossil fuels of any sort, and using energy in any way even via nuclear reactors only adds insult to injury because such activities produce waste heat that cannot be dissipated. Hence we are actually speeding up the rate of global warming by all our efforts to find and use more energy, fracking included. Our steadfast refusal to live by the rules of thermodynamics is rapidly shortening the time left for all life on planet Earth, our one and only spaceship.

Last updated 10 September 2014 by Eric R. Pianka