The art of energy.

Making government work better.
Feb. 1 2005 7:33 AM

The Art of Energy

The future will not be painted in oil.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Correction, Feb. 1: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Faraday demonstrated his discovery to Gladstone in 1831. (Return to the corrected sentence.)


Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.


Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.