Energy production is a lie (ep.1)
Humankind is currently facing its most important crisis, cumulating, climate change, mass extinction, and depletion of energy and resources. And yet, we currently benefit from knowledge that none of our ancestors could ever have. So, how did we get to this dramatic situation? Let’s revisit the path of our civilisation with the founding fathers’ eyes.
200 years ago, a physics theory — called Thermodynamics — was invented to explain and support the development of heat machines. It has been a cornerstone to understand and optimize steam engines and then modern petrol engines, fridges, air-conditioning units and lots of other machines. however, until now, macro-economists have not considered this domain to analyse our industrial world, as it was seen as a pure engineering thing. But as we are reaching limits in energy production and resources, this theory remains perfectly valid to understand our thermo-industrial economy.
Energy? did you say Energy?
Everything is energy and that is all to understand life.
Albert Einstein (although, I am always doubtful when reading a quote from him on the Internet)
Let’s start with the basics (I promise, it is not super complex, so hang-in there). Energy is a physical quantity that measures the change of state of a system. i.e. to what extent this system will looks differently after the change. It can look different in its in temperature, speed, shape, chemical organization, atomic composition…
Applied to our economic model, producing goods and services requires to insert Energy into raw material. But physics teaches us that Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but only conserved (in a closed environment). So, if we want to have more goods and services, we need to extract the necessary Energy from its environment.
So, how do we “insert Energy” into a good or service? We use “converters” that transform this Energy into another thing. The first converter humankind exploited was human bodies: feed it with biomass Energy (also called food) and you will get movements and heat. We then exploited working animals as “converters” and shortly afterwards, non-living converters such as sails and mills (to convert wind). Then heat engines were invented, able to burn biomass and convert it into movement.
Thermodynamics for dummies
Now that Energy is explained, we can go back to our main topic: Thermodynamics is a physics theory based on 2 main principles:
The first one states that, (in a closed environment), Energy is conserved over time, but can be transformed from one form of Energy to another.
The 2nd one states that “Entropy will always increase” during those transformations. You will find several explanations on what Entropy is — the most common being that Entropy is a measure of chaos. But another definition is that Entropy is the measure of the quality of Energy, i.e. how easily Energy can be used to do something.
So, combining those 2 principles, you conclude that:
- Energy does not pop out of nowhere.
- It can be transformed from one type of Energy to another, while remaining constant.
- Along those transformations, this Energy will be less and less useful to do things.
Let me take 2 examples:
Let start to illustrate the “Chaos” approach: imagine a glass of water and a sugar cube. Drop the sugar in the glass: the sugar disolves. Try to revert back: Nearly impossible. You if you were to spend a lot of Energy to dry out the sugar, you would surely end up with a gross disk of sugar at the bottom of the glass, not a cube. Chaos will always increase. (We will come back to this with more details in episode 2)
Then let’s illustrate the “quality of Energy”:
The sun burns its nuclear fuel and produces light (electro-magnetic energy). It is captured by plants to produce biomass (storing chemical energy). You eat plants and digest to power your muscles and ride a bike (mechanic energy). You stop your bike with the brakes: Energy is transformed. But at each step, there is also unnecessary heat produced: plant leaves warmed-up by the sun, your belly during digestion, your muscles when working-out, your bike’s breaks when activated. And heat is very difficult to transform into another Energy: Just try to heat your brakes and see if your bike moves. Energy has been transformed into a state that is less useful for us.
An Energy-hungry civilisation
Our “thermo-industrial” civilisation has given us super-natural powers. A power shovel is 10 000 times more powerful than the drivers’s arms; a train is 100 000 times more powerful than its driver’s legs; an airliner is 1 million times more powerful than the pilot’s legs. Said differently, in a world without machines, an average human would need 200 slaves to keep its current way of life 24/7. An average European would need 600 slaves and an average American 1800.
Therefore, for us to benefit from all those goods and services, our machines require gigantic amounts of Energy that we need to extract from our environment.
No Energy has been created on earth but was transferred from the sun to the earth progressively over the years. In the past, a large part of this energy has been transformed into biomass, buried into swamps, frozen in the permafrost, and sometime transformed into coal, oil and gas.
The daily amount of energy provided by the sun is gigantic, but it is difficult to extract efficiently. So, we decided to build our civilisation on a much easier source of energy: fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas, representing 85% of our total energy “production”) to grow the number of goods and services. Unfortunately, this was a bad idea. First, because fossil fuel is already the result of mainy transformations, and the only remaining transformational step that we can use is to burn it to produce heat. This leads to a very low efficiency — only 38% of the energy contained into the fossil fuel is transformed into “movement”. As I stated before, heat is very difficult to transform back into another type of energy.
Second, and worse, this produces CO² as a collateral, which accelerate the retention of solar Energy in the form of heat (once again, not an interesting type of Energy).
Our civilisation and way of life have addicted us to a very bad type of Energy source — fossil Energy — that locks us into a warming environment. Can we escape from this trap with the help of technology?
A new industry is building around green Energy. Circular economy is growing. Will those new models provide a safe harbor to humankind?
PS. I received few comments on the above ‘slave’ metephor, considering that it could be perieved as offensive. I have to admit that this was intentionally provocative, yet the crude reality: We are benefiting from the Energy that 200 people would produce, whenever we want, without paying the price of such manpower. I cannot call this situation ‘benefiting from people’s work’.
This metaphor is frequently used during public speeches by Jean-Marc Jancovici, a.k.a the inventor of the “carbon footprint”. If you want to read the initial metaphor (in French) (https://jancovici.com/transition-energetique/l-energie-et-nous/combien-suis-je-un-esclavagiste/).
You will find also in this article the detailed calculation for the machine to driver conversion. A strong man can burn up to 500W of energy at the maximum of his activity. But arms work will have a efficiency of 1%, i.e. 5W maximum. Legs grow the efficiency to 10%, i.e. 50W. You can then compare with the mechanical Energy converted by the above machines.
“… is a lie” is a series of scientifically rooted provocative thoughts on our civilisation. This 1st article will be followed by: