The Art of Energy
The future will not be painted in oil.
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005, at 7:33 AM
Indeed, for all our worrying about energy—or perhaps because of it—we humans have proved fantastically clever at plucking it from our surroundings. For the two centuries of industrial history now behind us, the technologies we have used to find, extract, or capture energy from our environment have certainly improved much faster than the horizon of supply has receded.
However bad it may be for the planet, the planet itself won't put a stop to this any time soon. Humanity currently consumes roughly 60 billion barrels of oil or its energy equivalent (referred to as BBOE, for billion barrels of oil equivalent) every year, about half of that as oil itself and half from other fuels. But the planet offers us, within quite easy reach, about 30,000 BBOE of coal and 2 million BBOE of oil shale. The winds of Nantucket Sound are powered by a tiny fraction of the 1 million BBOE of solar energy that reach the surface of the Earth every year. And the waters of the sound itself, and the oceans beyond, contain 2 trillion BBOE worth of deuterium, the fuel that lights the sun.
We think up new ways to use energy as fast as we think of new ways to find and seize it. Powered by much smaller blades but much richer fuel, a half-dozen jumbo jets in flight consume high-grade energy about as fast as the 130 turbines off Cape Cod will eventually generate it. We now build remarkably efficient solar cells out of silicon, but we build silicon microprocessors, too, and much faster; overall, the digital silicon currently consumes far more electricity than the solar silicon generates. In 1831, Michael Faraday, the great English physicist, discovered how to transform motion into electricity; he later demonstrated the phenomenon to William Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer. * "But, after all," Gladstone remarked, "what good is it?" To which Faraday could only reply, "Why, sir, one day you will tax it." With energy, that's always the safest bet: Demand materializes, and supplies do, too.
It's foolish to suppose that existing wells won't run dry—they will. But it's equally foolish to suppose that the tools we use to pump, strip, sift, seize, and separate energy from our surroundings can't improve and adapt as fast, or faster, than they have since 1765, when James Watt perfected a coal-fired steam engine … to facilitate the mining of more coal. For all practical purposes, energy supplies are determined not by the planet but by how ingenious we humans are at finding and seizing the energy we crave. And these days our engineers are so very clever, their handiwork is on display in one of the finest art museums in the country.
Peter Huber is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a columnist for Forbes magazine. His most recent book is Orwell's Revenge.
Mark Mills, of the Digital Group, is the coauthor of The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run out of Energy.
Photograph on Slate's Table of Contents of oil rig © Royalty-Free/Corbis.