The Search for Energy’s Holy Grail

21 02 2007

Climate change, as was pointed out in this column last week, has been primarily driven by carbon emissions from human activity in the past two and a half centuries. The industrial age has thrown more carbon di-oxide into the atmosphere than was done in the past 650,000 years. The effects of this massive infusion will last us for millennia to come and change the entire ecology of planet Earth.

But would modern civilisation, with its Promethean achievements, have been possible without these carbon emissions. Are not those who rail against the carbon emissions being hypocritical about the very industrial age which has brought so much progress and made man master of nature? And will not technology, which has overcome all challenges thrown to it till now, also find a way out for human beings to tackle climate change?

The reason behind the use of hydrocarbons becoming so widespread is quite well known — Coal and Oil are basically huge stores of ancient solar energy compressed into a relatively small volume. Scientists often express it as energy production ratio or EPR. This measures how much energy was returned compared to the energy invested or energy output / energy input. For human society to survive it was essential to find and harness energy sources where the EPR was higher than 1. An EPR less than one would mean that human beings would not be able to survive as they would be investing more energy than they got in return.

There are only two sources of energy available — nuclear and gravity.

Sunlight, which is the biggest source of energy on Earth is but the nuclear energy of the Sun. Solar energy is stored in plants and the animals which eat those plants which form human food. Coal, petroleum and gas are also nothing but plant and animal matter from a long time back and therefore solar energy. Gravity runs watermills and large hydroelectric plants. Together solar energy and gravity provide us sources like wind, sea waves, etc.

Prior to the discovery of coal, and later oil, the only way in which solar power could be harnessed was through agriculture and other primary production which converted the sun’s energy into food and other products like wood and fodder. There was also the conversion of solar power through windmills and of hydro-power though water mills (gravity). But the EPR in all these ranged between 1.1 to 1.2. Therefore, pre-modern life was marked by drudgery, hard labour and an inability to move too far from nature.

But things changed with the dawn of the industrial age. The discovery of coal and the ability to use coal and steam for manufacture seems almost parallel to the rise of the machines. Coal, with its EPR above 1.5 even for the worst varieties and most inefficient burnings, was a quantum jump in the energy surplus it provided. It provided levels of energy which was as yet unprecedented along with high levels of portability and therefore could fire the industrial revolution.

Oil, which was discovered and brought into use only after the consolidation of the coal driven industrial revolution, had a base EPR of 2 and above. Some estimations state that energy equivalent to only one barrel of oil was needed to bring a 100 barrels of this wonderous liquid to the consumer when petroleum was first drilled in Saudi Arabia! It was this huge energy surplus which has been the magic behind the miracle of modern life.

Modern civilisation, whatever our nationality, religion, ethnicity, is fatally dependent on these hydrocarbons. Coal, oil and gas are the Achilles Heel of our arrogant civilisation. It is not only the cars, buses, ships and planes which run on oil, but much of industry and electricity generation. Modern human society is totally dependant on hydrocarbons and their derivatives for food, clothing and shelter, for entertainment, defence and cultural life.

Look at agriculture. Not only is fertiliser and pesticide derived from petroleum and natural gas, water is pumped and farm inputs and labour transported to the field with the help of coal or oil. This food in turn reaches consumers with the help of further hydrocarbon use. One does not have to be a Malthusian to recognise the impossibility of feeding this planet’s 6.5 billion people without fertilizer and pesticide based agriculture. It may not be an exxageration to state that we are actually eating oil when we have our dal-roti.

It is not just agriculture. Oil and its derivatives surround us at every moment of our lives. Just take five minutes right now and list all the plastic you can see within the room. From pens and watches, to laptops and phones, to kitchen utensils and shoes, the list is practically endless. You may just about be wearing petroleum if you have a nylon dress on. Similar is the list for medicines and other uses of oil (and coal).

But it was not merely the high EPR and myriad uses which enabled coal and oil to fuel industrialised society. It also required a smart sleight of hand by the market and its priests –the economists, to make hydrocarbons so inexpensive.

The miracle of the market is the price it puts on each commodity that comes into its domain. This price, we are told, determines the value society puts on that commodity while at the same time covering the cost of its production. While this is true of most commodities which are continuously manufactured, such a pricing mechanism fails for non-renewable commodities like coal and oil. Each kilogram of coal or each litre of oil which is burnt is non-renewable, that is irreplacable. Once consumed it is gone forever, it cannot be recreated. The fact that Earth’s sinews contained about 2 trillion barrels of oil produced a simulation of infinity and enabled the cheap pricing of these crucial commodities. “Production” of coal or oil is calculated only on the basis of how much can be brought to the market at any given time. But non-renewable products are, in that sense, priceless since once used it can never be got back.

When the consumption of hydrocarbon commodities was much below the total reserves, this illusion of infinity and consequent low prices could be kept intact. But today when we have consumed almost half the total oil inside the Earth and such illusions are increasingly turning into nightmares. The present world is so completely dependent on oil that it is practically impossible to shift to another, equally powerful yet inexpensive, energy source.

Nuclear energy, apart from being intrinsically unsafe, is a limited energy source. Nuclear fusion still remains in the realm of science fiction, while Hydrogen fuel has an EPR below 1! Further, all these are good for producing electricity. From where will we source the urea for our crops, the plastic for our lives, the polymers for our medicines, etc. It may happen that some technological solution is found. It better be quick since by consensus we have only 30 to 50 years of petroleum left inside the Earth.

Therefore the question becomes that much more urgent: Can we weather this storm?

~  ~  ~

This was published in The Post on 14 February 2007.





2 responses

24 02 2007

Nuclear fusion is not scifi any more. What are your thoughts about ITER?

But would modern civilisation, with its Promethean achievements, have been possible without these carbon emissions. Are not those who rail against the carbon emissions being hypocritical about the very industrial age which has brought so much progress and made man master of nature? And will not technology, which has overcome all challenges thrown to it till now, also find a way out for human beings to tackle climate change?

In fact it was this technological progress that provided mankind an ability to forecast its doom, if things stay the same.

The argument regarding market forces was interesting. Nice post 🙂

6 03 2009

The price mechanism shows only the marginal utility consumers attach, for a given amount of supply of the commodity. It need not take into account the total utility or the “priceless” importance of a commodity.

But again, when oil reserves hit alarmingly low levels, prices will reflect the situation very clearly. It will provide an useful buffer time (ranging decades) within which alternative sources can be spotted (provided leftists don’t block speculative trading and futures).

I don’t find any reason why the market prices should reflect the
“priceless”-ness of oil. If you do create a new type of pricing to show its priceless-ness, then it would be out of reach to the common man. Now waiting forever is a priceless cost to humankind, isn’t it?

It is just the present marginal utility of the commodity that actually matters, nothing else. The market price system has an inbuilt mechanism to encourage investment in alternative energy sources, and the capital resources are transferred quickly in the stock market.

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