Two superb primers on energy

Without cheap, abundant, and reliable energy neither the construction, illumination, nor activity after dark you see here would be possible. Photo courtesy of
Without cheap, abundant, and reliable energy none of the construction, illumination, or activity after dark you see here would be possible. Photo of San Diego skyline courtesy of

I found two more in-depth discussions of energy. I’m writing this blog to help me learn what is going on around us. If you are tagging along on my learning journey, you really oughta’ check these out:

8/21 – Daniel Yergin at Wall Street Journal – The Power Revolutions /Natural gas, solar power and data-driven efficiency are making big gains, but history shows that the shift away from coal and oil won’t be fast or neat – Anything you see in print from Mr. Yergin is worth reading.

He points out that it takes an extremely long time to make any major transition in sources of energy.

Coal power replaced burning trees. For example, it took 60 years for coal to go from 5% to 50% of the world’s energy supply. It took a century of use for oil to surpass coal as the most used energy source.

The same factors will come into play for wind and solar. Each source faces huge technological and economic issues. In addition there is massive infrastructure in place for coal and oil.

One of his many comments that was an aha! for me:

A no less important lesson is that, even as newer sources overtake older ones, they also overlay them; the older hardly go away. Oil may have overtaken coal as the world’s top energy source in the 1960s, but since then, global coal consumption has tripled.

That tells me the same factors will come into play with wind and solar. Even assuming wind and solar eventually overcome the massive technical issues, systemic unreliability, and extreme price disadvantage, coal and oil will still play a major role for many decades to come.

The fracking revolution started in the 1980s, courtesy of George Mitchell. It wasn’t until about 30 years later that the US has produced a flood of natural gas and shale oil. Thomas Edison was working on an electric car a century ago. Hybrid and electric-only vehicles have only been around a few years.

8/26 – Center for Industrial Progress – Power Hour: Mark Mills on America’s Energy Opportunities – Hour-long interview with Mark Mills allows plenty of time to actually develop and explain ideas. For example our energy system is astoundingly complex. One study ranked the electric grid in the US as the most significant technology system of the last century. Mr. Mills explains how radically that has transformed our lives and economy.

I’d not heard this idea before, probably because I’m a slow learner: the physics of electricity require that we generate electricity the instant we use it. Without incurring astronomical cost, electricity cannot be stored for longer than the time it takes to “move” it down the line from the generating source to the lamp in my office.

Alex Epstein suggests we use the word “unreliables” instead of “renewables” when describing wind and solar.

Remember that idea we have to generate electricity the instant is needed? The flipside is we have to use electricity the instant it is generated or it dissipates. At the moment the wind is blowing or the sun is shining we have to use that electricity. The instant the wind slows or thermal energy from the sun doesn’t reach the ground, other generation sources must immediately pick up the load or your air-conditioner shuts down. (That’s if you are lucky. If not lucky, the motor incurs wear in a way that reduces its lifetime of service, meaning it fails sooner.)

Mr. Mills demolishes other arguments for an immediate transition to mostly, or all, reliance on unreliables. Storage cost is astronomical. “Load balancing” would be very costly. Don’t forget to include the cost of expanded distribution system as solar and wind use increases.

By making the most favorable, optimistic assumptions at every step of the calculation, he guesses that relying on an all-unreliables plan for our energy (100% wind and solar) would increase the cost of electricity by factor of 10. More realistic assumptions would suggest the cost to go up radically more than 10x.

Three more mind bending comments:

  • A millennial using an iPhone today consumes as much electricity in a year as a refrigerator.
  • Data centers around the world consume more energy than all the airlines in the world.
  • Anytime you notice anything that wasn’t put in place by nature it took energy and manufacturing to create it and get it there.

Check out both of the articles if you want some deep background on energy. Lots of good learnin’ there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *