T Nation

The Bottomless Well

Interesting new book by Mssrs. Peter Huber and Mark Mills. The basic contention is that humans’ thirst for energy, combined with ingenuity, guarantee that while we will constantly be “running out” of energy based on current assumptions, we will constantly identify new sources and make more efficient use of old ones.

I think this is essentially correct - at least it has definitely been the case thus far that the predictions of disaster, which have been with us since before the 1950s, have all been wrong. I think of this rather like Julian Simon writ small – only dealing with energy issues instead of all commodities.

I’ll be interested to see the arguments to debunk the thesis – I’m including the review of the book from the Wall Street Journal:

Go Ahead, Leave the Light On

By SPENCER REISS
February 1, 2005; Page D8

Midway through the Reagan administration – admittedly a trying time for doomsayers – energy guru Amory Lovins consulted his herbal tea leaves and announced to Business Week: “The long-term prospects for selling more electricity are dismal.” Henceforth, the engines of progress would be powered by sweaters, dimmer switches and compact fluorescent lights.

California’s utility czars actually bought into the gloom and stopped building generating plants. They were still gamely handing out energy-efficient light bulbs in the spring 2001, when the Golden State’s overtaxed chunk of the North American power grid sank under the ever-rising demand for more electrons.

So much for energy fantasy land, one of the great theme parks of modern life. In the real world, Californians over the past two decades have taken Mr. Lovins’s forecast of electricity use “as flat as the Kansas horizon” and done just what the rest of their fellow Americans did: They ignored it and doubled down. Nuclear power, left for dead after Three Mile Island, turbo-charged its reactors and tripled its annual gigawatts. GE Energy helped pay for Jack Welch’s retirement by selling gas turbines and coal-fired power plants. Utility bills soared. And all this in the land of the free, the putative home of kilowatt consciousness. We won’t even talk about the neon-lit, electrifying splendor of Shanghai or Shenzen.

Why this happened, why it will continue to happen and – most important – why all of us should thank our lucky SUVs that it does happen are the subjects of “The Bottomless Well” (Basic Books, 214 pages, $26), Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills’s delightfully upbeat book ( http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0465031161/qid=1107281070/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/102-7103675-1208168?v=glance&s=books ). The authors take the never-ending debate over how to keep our lights lit and TV sets warm and turn it on its head. Efficiency spurs more consumption. Throwing BTUs around is good for the environment. Humanity’s insatiable appetite for energy will save the planet. “We will always run out of fuel,” Messrs. Huber and Mills calmly advise. “And we will always find more.” Hold on, Amory, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

If all this sounds merely outrageous, “The Bottomless Well” is in fact the soul of seriousness, leavened here and there by lively applied physics and nifty reality-based charts (no guru-style, hockey-stick curves stretching heavenward here). Mr. Huber is a former MIT engineering professor turned Washington telecom lawyer; Mr. Mills, a physicist and former science adviser to the Reagan White House. Together they arrive at a key insight: Energy ultimately comes not from sunshine or buried Cambrian goo or even from uranium left over from the Big Bang – mere fuels. Energy (or, more accurately, power) is what happens when you apply human intelligence – the “bottomless well” of the book’s title – to the physical world. And the more power people make, the better they use it to find and refine ever more potent fuels. This explains why no one in America or Europe heats his house with coal anymore (let alone cow dung). And why silicon-smartened electrons in computers – “digital power,” Messrs. Huber and Mills call it – are pushing energy management into overdrive.

“The Bottomless Well” gushes illuminating data. The price of light to read Proust or find your way to the microwave by has dropped a tidy ten-thousand-fold since Ben Franklin was playing with keys and lightning. A gallon of crude oil pumped today from 10,000 feet under the North Sea costs the same as the stuff pulled up from 69 feet under Titusville, Pa., in 1859. (The first warning about the imminent exhaustion of oil supplies came from Pennsylvania’s state geologist in 1890.) As far back as anyone can peer, increasing energy use tracks perfectly with rising wealth.

Lest anyone suspect the authors of fossil-fuel troglodytism, their favorite car is also Hollywood’s – Toyota’s semi-electric Prius. The only thing they’d like better (and fully expect to see) is a car that dispenses with a gas tank altogether. For similar reasons, they’re delighted by (though agnostic about) solar cells, which take their energy neat, without quixotic windmills or nasty burning. They call hydrogen “the one technology that might yet prove Al Gore right.” And they’re predictably happy with nukes, whose fuel is the densest of all – that is, the most powerful. “Energy isn’t the problem,” the authors conclude. “Energy is the solution.”

Contrast such a view with that of Stanford University’s population “expert,” Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 bestseller predicted that “hundreds of millions of millions of people will starve to death” in the decades to come. “Giving society cheap and abundant energy,” he wrote in 1975, “would be the equivalent to giving an idiot child a machine gun.” Whose team would you rather be on?

It won’t shock anyone to hear that Mr. Lovins is still out there doomsaying – now pushing, as a solution, cellulose ethanol, made from proposed vast new plantations of switchgrass and poplar. The real travesty, of course, is that while he and other “soft energy” advocates peddle their nonsense, the hard-fuels crowd is ripping up large chunks of various landscapes, loading it on trains and burning it to keep the lights on. Not to mention keeping the civilized world in hock to a menagerie of theocratic and plain-vanilla despots.

Coal and oil are lovely stuff, but as energy sources they are getting a little long in the tooth. We can do better. And, if Messrs. Huber and Mills are right, we will.

Mr. Reiss reports on energy and commercial space travel for Wired magazine.

Interesting.

I think (without having read it) that the authors are making a key distinction, between fuel, and useable energy. That thru advancing technology, we can expand the amount of useable energy, both by further exploiting existing fuel and energy sources, and making new ones more cost effective. There is a lot of truth to this.

However, I believe that the crisis we are facing is not running out of energy. And it is not a science and technology problem, but rather one of economics and social dynamics.

Here is the problem, in a nutshell.

We are overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels, and not only as fuel sources but also for very many common products.

Fossil fuels are limited, and will one day run out. No one knows exactly when.

When this happens, our current society will require rather dramatic changes in a rather short period of time. Industries must retool. New industries, based on alternate energy sources, must be built and must mature.

This will cause economic and social turmoil. This, I believe, is the best-case scenario.

The reason for this is that we cannot switch to alternate energy sources until we are forced to do so. This is for economic reasons. But by the time we are forced to switch, we will be in somewhat dire circumstances.

Our advancement, with respect to alternate energy sources, in the last 50 years, has been terribly slow. It is hard for me to believe that this is because scientists are lazy, and once given the proper incentive, will “pick up the pace”. The reality is that some sources of energy will always be too expensive to be practical in mass scale. Others, such as hydrogen cars, simply represent another way of storing energy. The fact is that we are currently exploiting energy sources as effectively as we can, and that has changed little in the past several centuries.

So for the most part, I agree with what the authors are saying, with regard to the availability of fuel and energy sources. I just think they ignore or vastly underestimate the cost of moving societies from fossil fuels.

Do y’all realize that we are still trying to switch to the metric system? That we can’t even balance our budget? That lots of people are still buying Muscle and Fitness?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

-Greg Matous

I recently picked up this book and have only just begun to read it. It has some interesting points in the first few chapters. I’ll post a full review upon completion.

cyman