Thoughts on Energy

A couple of articles caught my eye today about energy. Seems the appetite for oil in China shot up 28% this year — and the Saudis are looking to sell more there than to North America. And another that suggested the peak production point for Kuwait is probably much sooner than forecast — probably 2014. And there is that wasteful catastrophy called the oil sands…sigh.

Seems to me we have wasted a lot of years in energy development and are now playing catchup. I hope for our sake that the race to produce energy catches up with the race to consume it. The evolution of our societies is driven by using more and more energy (just watch TV sometimes…)  so to turn away from this path is societal suicide.

What I find interesting about all this is that right now all of our energy comes from the sun — directly or indirectly. The food we eat grows through chemical processes driven by sunlight. The plants of former times got buried and eventually became coal. I suspect that oil is really old organic ocean sediments cooked by subduction. So like our metabolism, we burn these organic remains to produce heat which we turn into electricity. The carbon goes back into the pool to be turned by sunlight back into organic matter — and while hanging around waiting it helps warm our planet, together with many other factors.

Hydroelectric power comes from falling water — water that was lifted by solar evaporation and deposited elsewhere by the wind. And wind is driven by differences in air pressure caused by solar heating of the planet.

And let us not forget nuclear energy — where we extract heat from the forced decay of unstable heavy metals. These heavy metals ultimately are the ashes of old supernova explosions a very long time ago, the remains of billions of years of nuclear fusion.

In the end there is only the sun — and various levels of inefficiency in extracting its energy gifts. I wonder how long it will take before we can make this most fundamental process work directly? It has been just around the corner since I was an undergrad in the 60’s. But it seems the immediate rewards of burning our planet trump the basic research needed. It would be nice if the people controlling the money flow really believed.


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