The Global Solution for the Coming Energy Crisis
by Ralph Nansen
Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission
Chapter 3: Our Energy Heritage
The sun is a seething mass of gases — a giant nuclear fusion reactor. An atomic furnace bathing the earth with its life-giving energy. Through the ages the earth has gathered the energy, turning some back into the void of space, converting some into the life that sets our planet apart from the others in our solar system. Some was gradually stored in the mantle of the earth’s surface, some continuously stirred the fluids and gases that cover its surface. Throughout time it has been the source of all our energy.
What has it meant to us in the past? The past is important, because it can teach us the lessons that allow us to progress into the future and unravel its secrets with knowledge and understanding.
The history of mankind in the industrial age is really the history of our ability to utilize energy beyond the confines of our own bodies. Ancient people had only the strength of their arms, legs, and backs to gather food and provide shelter. Even their weapons depended on physical strength to deliver mortal blows to enemies and meat-providing animals. This meant they had to approach very closely to their prey, and occasionally it resulted in them becoming the prey if they were exceptionally ambitious about the size of their dinner. People’s sphere of territory was bounded by the endurance of their legs. An individual’s ability to pursue game was limited to the speed with which he could run —so he was usually forced to use skill and cunning to stalk his food, rather than speed to outdistance it. As people developed, they found it was easier to stay in one place and grow most of their food. At first, even this was very difficult because of the need to provide all the labor of cultivation with the sweat of their brow.
The Beginning — The First Energy Era
It was certainly a long time before civilization reached the point of cultivating food, but the first era of energy began long before that. It began when the first fire was lit by early man. That was the real start of civilization, for when people could control fire, they were expanding their power over energy outside of their own bodies. Fire provided warmth and protection from wild animals. It probably did not take too long until people discovered that cooking made food more palatable and provided warm food and drink on a cold night.
The fuel for the fires was wood, as it was undoubtedly the burning of forests set afire by lightning that was mankind’s first experience with fire, long before people learned how to create fire by themselves. Wood was the natural fuel, as it grew nearly everywhere and was always available — it only had to be gathered together. It was the perfect fuel for the first energy era.
The Era of Wood was to last for uncounted ages, starting long before recorded history and serving human development well as civilization evolved. It was wood that provided the energy to fire pottery. It was wood-burning fires that provided the warmth that made living in the higher latitudes possible.
The invention of methods to produce fire at will must have been one of early humankind’s most prized possessions. Before then, fires started by nature were carefully maintained to keep alive the precious coals so the flame could be rekindled when warmth was needed again. When the camp was moved from place to place, the glowing embers were protected with the same care as were the treasures of gold and silver in later years. If the embers were to die, the camp would have to wait for the next lightning storm to hopefully ignite a new fire. The family or tribe member who allowed the fire to die must have been dealt with severely, for the loss of fire created significant hardship — everyone would have to go without warmth, cooked food, and protection from wild animals until they could find a new source. Sustaining their fires was one of the most important elements of early people’s lives.
Probably the first practical method of starting fire was by friction from rubbing dry sticks together. (Not an easy method, as I discovered when I tried to perform the task as a Boy Scout.) The in¬dividual who could start fires would have received the homage of the rest of the family or tribe. It was much later, after the start of the Iron Age, that the use of flint and iron or steel came into use. They were then used for thousands of years as civilization grew. It was not until 1827, when John Walker introduced sulfur friction, or “Lucifer” matches, that flint and steel could finally be banished as relics of the past.
Fire was the mainstay of prehistoric life, but its true importance to the development of civilization was yet to be manifested. It was the discovery of how to refine and work metals with fire that provided the advancement into first the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age. Without fire this would not have been possible. Without the ability to work metals into tools and implements, our civilization as we know it could not exist. It was about 4000 BC when copper alloys, the basis of the Bronze Age, were being used in Egypt. The Egyptians also were using fire to melt gold and silver for adornments to enrich their lives.
But it was the ability to make iron, which began about 3000 BC, that really opened the door to advanced development. With the intense heat of burning charcoal, made from wood, iron ore could be refined into iron implements, simple tools and weapons that vastly improved the quality of life for early civilizations. Ultimately, iron led to the steel that provides the basis for our advanced civilization.
As the centuries passed the use of metal spread, and by 1500 to 1000 BC the true Iron Age had begun in Syria and Palestine. By 1000 BC the use of iron had expanded to Greece, and over the next few hundred years spread throughout the known world.
Fire, with all its wonderful capabilities, did not provide any energy to aid people’s mobility — that came first from the animal kingdom. The domesticating of donkeys, oxen, horses, and other beasts served transportation needs for thousands of years. Animals greatly improved the ability to cultivate fields so that one farmer could feed many families in addition to his own. Animals provided man with the ability to carry burdens far beyond the strength of his own back. They allowed people the choice of making long journeys in reasonable periods of time. However, even with this great multiplying effect, a horse could only run so fast and so far no matter how much food it was fed.
As the earth’s commerce expanded to the edges of the known world, the inventive mind of human beings added a new source of energy. Wind filled the sails of ships hauling cargo and people. At first, sails supplemented oarsmen, eventually replacing them completely. As people’s ability to capture and control the wind was developed, their horizons stretched to encompass the entire world. It was the energy of the wind that first made this possible.
Each step up the ladder of human development was accomplished with the aid of energy that provided the tools or materials or power that made the step possible. The use of gears led to the invention of ox-driven waterwheels for irrigation around 200 BC. The light of candles and oil lamps added to the expanding standard of living. In the year 285 AD, Pappus of Alexandria described five machines in use at that time: cogwheel, lever, pulley, screw, and wedge. These were not very complicated machines, but they were the tools that allowed people to build great buildings and to construct other machines to make life better. By the year 700 AD waterwheel-driven mills were in use throughout Europe. Fire made the manufacturing of glass possible, and glass windows came into use.
The animal kingdom and wind were great contributors to the energy pool available to our ancestors as more and more of their needs were accomplished by sources outside their physical capability, but it was still wood that was the dominant energy source during this era.
The First Energy Crisis
Through the early ages of human history, civilization developed mainly in the warmer latitudes of the earth — Syria, Greece, India, China, Egypt, Rome, and the other lands around the Mediterranean Sea. As the understanding and use of fire for warmth grew, civilization reached farther into the northern latitudes. These people were more dependent on wood to fuel their fires and provide material to build their houses, so its use was greatly increased as the population grew. The invasion of Britain by Iron Age people around 250 BC had introduced the art of iron-making to that part of the world, so additional demands were placed on the fuel supply as the use of iron for utensils, tools, and weapons expanded.
Shipbuilding became another major use of wood as England expanded its commerce across the seas to other lands. This meant a navy was required to protect the rights of the ships of commerce —and that required even more wood to build ships and feed the fires to cast the guns and forge the ships’ weapons. Even the great stone cathedrals needed wood for the falsework that supported the lofty arches while they were being built. The need for wood increased so much in England that the rate of cutting down trees was higher than the rate at which they could be grown. The first energy crisis had begun.
It was a crisis that had no distinct event in history to mark its beginning. It was simply a gradual increase of demand exceeding supply. Even then it was not a universal problem, but one that evolved from one local area to another — regional shortages that at first could be supplied from neighboring areas. The lack of any large-scale transportation system would have made this expensive, however, so the first indication of the crisis must have been the lack of ready availability and the resulting increase in cost.
The period in which this first occurred is not clear, but it probably started around 1500 or possibly earlier in some areas. Its duration was to last for over a century in England. For some of the very poor nations on earth it is still going on today as they have stripped their lands of trees in the attempt to stay warm and cook their food. However, it is what happened in England that has had a lasting impact on all of the world’s people.
In England, the demand for wood for heating, cooking, ironworks, and shipbuilding became so high it could no longer be supplied from within the boundaries of the British Isles. The increasing scarcity of wood meant that the price increased, so conservation was forced on those who could not afford the increased cost. Alternative fuels were used where they could be found. Alternative materials were used where practical for buildings. Wood was imported from the colonies and the European continent to supplement the diminishing supply. As a result of this added transportation cost and increased demand, the price of wood rose sharply. There was also no substitute for wood to build ships. England depended on her navy and merchant fleet for survival, so wood had to be saved for ships and other important uses — such as trees for the king’s hunting forest.
The search for alternative sources of fuel was certainly not a well-organized plan of evaluation by panels of experts working under government direction. And it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Rather, it is more likely that some wandering hunter found himself far from home one night and stopped to build a fire to cook his meal. He was probably shocked and wondering what kind of spell had been cast upon the black rocks — coal — that caught fire where he built his evening fire, for in England at that time coal could be found laying on the ground in some locations. It was probably used by some people for many years before it was first mined in Newcastle in 1233.
Although we do not have a date for the beginning of the first energy crisis, the year 1233 marked the beginning of the end of the era of wood. That era was to last for another 400 years, but in 1233 the stage was being set for one of the most dramatic periods in the development of civilization, as coal was to become the energy source that would fuel the industrial revolution.
As wood became scarce a combination of conditions resulted in an economic crisis with many of the same problems experienced by the modern world following the 1973-74 oil embargo. Although there was still a good supply of wood in the world, the cost of importing it damaged the British economy and living standard. Wood had been the main fuel throughout history up to this time, and even though coal was a known commodity it was not easy to make the conversion from wood to coal. Coal did not exist everywhere—it had to be transported from the mines to the users. It was difficult and hazardous to mine. It was dirty and heavy, and the smiths did not know how to make iron with coal.
By 1580 the capacity of wood to meet the needs of the expanding nation was exceeded. New buildings were banned in London to restrict growth of the city. The first energy crisis was at hand and an era — the Era of Wood, which had started when humans harnessed the first fire — was at an end.
The Second Era and the Industrial Revolution
With wood so scarce, England turned to the earth for fuel. Out of the ground came the black rocks to fire the second era of energy — the Era of Coal. Coal heated homes and cooked food, but at first the energy to run machines still came from wind or animals or people. Iron was still manufactured with charcoal made from wood.
It wasn’t until 1640 that coke was first distilled from coal. From then on the iron and steel industry blossomed as new processes were developed to use the enhanced thermal properties of coal. Benjamin Huntsman improved the “crucible” process for smelting steel in 1740. The first iron-rolling mill was established at Fareham in Hampshire, England, in 1754. At the Carron ironworks in Stirlingshire, Scotland, cast iron was converted into malleable iron for the first time in 1762. Coal was providing the iron and steel for the machines needed for the industrial revolution.
Other industries in England were flourishing as well. Linen goods had been manufactured for centuries, and cotton goods were added in 1641. Sawmills were being run by wind, and paper mills had been in operation since 1590. The great void in industrialization, however, was the energy to run the machines. Horses and oxen and people and wind were not enough. The white hot heat of a coal fire was not enough by itself. What was needed was an engine to put the heat of a coal fire to work, to run the machines of industry.
James Watt is generally given the credit for inventing the steam engine, which finally made it possible for coal to achieve its full destiny, but many others made contributions along the way. Men had dreamed for centuries of using steam to produce useful work. More than a hundred years before Christ, Hero of Alexandria described a method of producing rotary motion using steam. In 1543 the Spanish navigator and mechanician Blasco da Garay submitted the design for a steam boat to King Charles V. Nearly a century later, in 1630, a French writer described a method of raising water to the upper part of a house by means of steam. A book called Century of Inventions, published in 1655 by the Marquis of Worcester, included a similar method. In 1690, the French engineer Denis Papin devised a pump with a piston that was raised by steam; in 1707 he invented the high-pressure boiler. Captain Savery was granted a patent in 1698 for a primitive method of utilizing the power of steam.
But it was the work of Newcomen and Cawley, who in 1705 constructed a machine with a detached steam boiler for pumping, that was ultimately used by James Watt as the foundation for his development of successful steam engines.
Watt was born in Greenlock, Scotland, in 1736 and spent his early years being taught by his mother and father at home because of poor health. Even as a young boy he was fascinated by the characteristics of steam and would sit by the hour watching the tea kettle on his mother’s stove playing with the lid in the rising steam. Years later, when he was at the University of Glascow working as a mathematical instrument maker, he came across one of the Newcomen engines in the laboratory. He was soon assigned to repair it. In the process he improved its construction and made it work successfully so it could be used for instruction in the classroom. It was a very incomplete machine and not capable of doing any serious work, but it was enough for James Watt. He used it as a model to develop steam engines that could perform real work. The key was his invention in 1764 of the steam condenser, and in 1769 Watt secured his patent on the steam engine. He made steam engines that would do the work of the world — when fired with the energy of burning coal, his engines carried civilization into the industrial age. In spite of Watt’s sickly youth he lived to be 83, and many of his engines lasted much longer; some are even in running condition today.
The coal mines of England were one of the first beneficiaries of coal-fired steam power. They were often subject to flooding and had to be pumped — a very difficult task until the invention of the steam engine. Many of Watt’s early operational engines were designed and built to pump water from coal mines.
The development of the steam engine was the beginning of another giant step forward in man’s ability to multiply his own strengths and productivity. He now had a way to convert thermal energy into mechanical energy.
Improvements came rapidly, and in 1782 Watt added his invention of the double-acting rotary steam engine. Only 25 years after Watt perfected his engine, Robert Fulton used one to power the Clermont from Albany to New York in less than 36 hours. No longer would man be bound by the fetters of his own strength, or that of the horse, or the whims of the wind. Man was now the master.
The pace of civilization exploded into the industrial revolution as the energy of coal-burning steam engines performed work that had previously been impossible. Industrial development blossomed. James Watt and Matthew Boulton installed the first steam engine to run a cotton-spinning factory at Papplewick, Nottinghamshire, in 1785. Manchester had its own factory by 1787. The first steam-powered rolling mills were built in England in 1790, and by 1797 England was exporting iron.
The age of rail transportation began in 1801 with the installation of the first iron trolley tracks at Croydon-Wandsworth, England. George Stephenson constructed the first practical steam locomotive at Killingsworth Collier near Newcastle in 1814; in 1822 he built the first iron railroad bridge for the Stockton-Darlington line, which opened in 1825 as the world’s first railroad line to carry passengers. The Liverpool-Manchester line opened in 1830.
In the US construction was started on the Baltimore and Ohio railroad in 1828. The first French railroad line, from St. Etienne to Andrezieux, opened in 1832. The first German line opened in 1835. By that time over a thousand miles of track was in use in America. These examples were only the beginning as creative minds dreamed of new ways to put energy to work providing mobility and dramatically increased productivity. One person could control a powerful machine doing the work of large numbers of people. And because of improved transportation, ideas could now be exchanged more rapidly at greater distances.
The second era, the Era of Coal, was in full swing. It had started in England because of necessity, but it soon took on a life of its own. With its ability to power thermal engines and produce iron and steel, coal elevated England, a small island nation, to the dominant industrial power on earth. England was not the only country with coal, however, and it did not take long for the Era of Coal to spread to most of the industrialized world. Without it, other nations could not compete in the world markets. Nations that had their own coal resources were the most fortunate. As their economies expanded, their people had the highest standards of living.
The nineteenth century saw the zenith of the Era of Coal as industrial development spread throughout the world. The ships of commerce lost their sails, and their masts became smokestacks. Railroads spanned the American continent and crisscrossed Europe. Coal was not the only fuel, but it was the standard-bearer for industrial use. Wood was still used in many homes, but it could not satisfy the demands of industry.
Coal was not the perfect answer, however, as the engines it powered were not adaptable to all uses and people yearned for even more than coal could provide.
There were other problems as well. Burning coal produced prodigious amounts of pollutants, and the machinery required for mobile systems was large. As early as 1661 the effects of air pollution were attacked by John Evelyn in his writing, Fumifugium, or The Inconvenience of the Air and Smoke of London Dissipated. At that time, the world population was only 500 million; all of England had less than seven million inhabitants.
Unfortunately, the air did not get any better through the ensuing three centuries as the population grew. Not until after the Second World War, when London smog was so bad it killed many people, did the government finally ban the burning of coal in private homes. But in the heyday of coal, the issue of air pollution did not have a serious impact on its use because of the relatively small population and the tremendous financial benefits it was providing. The smoke-belching factory chimneys and black trails of soot streaming behind the passing trains became the symbols of wealth.
However, coal could not satisfy the need for lights, so other methods and fuels were used. As early as 1702, many German towns were lit by oil. The first attempts to use gas lighting were made in 1786 in both England and Germany. By 1807 London streets were lit by gas. Boston had gas street lights by 1822, and the Unter den Linden in Berlin had gas lights in 1826.
Other developments were taking place as well in the rich environment of industrial development. The mysterious world of electricity was first glimpsed by Stephen Gray in 1729 when he determined that some bodies conduct electricity and some are insulators; by Von Kleist in 1745 when he invented the capacitor; and then by Benjamin Franklin in his famous experiments with lightning in 1752. These early efforts were but the precursors of what was to be discovered about electricity during the nineteenth century.
Our language is filled with words like ampere, volt, ohms, faraday, henry, wheatstone, and gauss. Today they are names of electrical characteristics, but in the last century they were the names of men — scientists, engineers, and inventors who searched for and discovered the mysteries of electricity. By the start of the twentieth century the world had coal-powered and water-powered electric-generating plants, city streets were being lit with electricity, and practical batteries had been developed.
Other fuels were also tried and other kinds of engines were investigated. In 1860 the French engineer Jean-Joseph-Etienne Lenoir constructed the first practical internal combustion engine using illuminating gas as a fuel: the natural gas fuel that was used for gas lights. This was followed in 1876 by the first successful engine operating on the four-stroke principle, built by the German technician Nikolaus August Otto, also using illuminating gas as fuel. But it was another German, Karl Benz, who really inaugurated the automobile age when he obtained a patent on a self-propelled vehicle powered by a gasoline engine in 1886. He built his first four-wheel car in 1893. That same year Henry Ford built his first automobile, and the future of the world was changed forever.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Era of Coal was at its peak. There were no shortages, but the industrial revolution it had created was simply outgrowing coal’s capability to satisfy all of the expanding demands. A new, cheaper, and more flexible source was required if modern civilization was to continue to develop.
Like a tough old fighter who had struggled and risen to be world champion, then was suddenly beaten and displaced by a young kid, so king coal would be replaced by oil. The Era of Coal was heading for a sudden end, though it is still a major source of electric power generation today.
The Third Era — The Era of Oil
Even though the knowledge of oil reaches back before the start of recorded history, it did not become significant until modern times. Thousands of years ago, oil was used in various parts of the world to light lamps. It was also used as a glue under inlaid mosaic walls and floors, and Noah used it to seal his ark by applying two coats of bitumen outside and one coat inside. The Romans used flaming oil containers to destroy the Saracen fleet in 670. In the same century, the Japanese were digging wells to depths approaching 900 feet with picks and shovels in search of oil, and by 1100, the Chinese had reached depths of more than 3,000 feet, also with picks and shovels. This all happened centuries before the West had sunk its first well.
Most of the early oil was found in the form of asphalt in natural beds on the surface where oil had bubbled up out of the ground. Lighter, more volatile components had been refined away by nature, leaving the heavier fuels and asphalt. As the centuries passed, more and more oil was found naturally. Throughout the part of the world we now call the Middle East there were a great many seepages. Some were ignited by chance and became the “eternal fires” of the Persian fire worshipers. The ancient Persians used petroleum in warfare by shooting arrows tipped with burning pitch into the ranks of their enemies.
Marco Polo visited the oil fields of Baku near the end of the thirteenth century and told of “a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it at one time,” and added that “this oil is not good to use with food, but it is good to burn.” Baku is on the Caspian Sea, now a part of Russia’s great oil-producing fields.
During the middle of the eighteenth century, a Swede named Peter Kalm published a report of his travels in the British colonies in America. One of his finds was a place he called “Oil Springs” in an area that was to become Pennsylvania. The course of humanity was to later be changed by those springs.
By the early part of the nineteenth century, oil from Pennsylvania was selling for two dollars a gallon. By mid-century, it was down to seventy-five cents a gallon and was replacing sperm whale oil. Oil’s use for lighting was spurred by the invention of kerosene, an oil refined from coal, by Dr. Abraham Gesner of Nova Scotia in 1846. It was so successful that other companies soon began making “coal-oil.” This brought about a revived interest in petroleum, and in 1855 at Oil Creek, Pennsylvania, Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale showed by experiments that petroleum was as good as oil made from coal.
Because of the growing demand for petroleum, a group of business men led by Edwin L. Drake decided to drill for oil using salt-well-drilling equipment. Their first commercial well was sunk by William A. Smith near Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, and produced ten barrels a day. This more than doubled the maximum production in America at the time, which had been 2,000 barrels a year —the same as Russia, the other big oil producer.
In the latter part of the century, Pennsylvania’s oil production soared and prices dropped. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil Company in 1870 to take part in the growing oil industry. Stimulated by availability, low price, and its wonderful characteristics, the uses for oil mushroomed.
The golden age of oil had not yet started, however. That day was reserved for the twentieth century. It came upon us suddenly in an unexpected place. On January 10, 1901, at 10:30 a.m. in a place just south of Beaumont, Texas, a drilling crew was replacing a pipe string to continue exploratory drilling in solid rock at 1,160 feet. Suddenly, mud started flowing out of the hole and history came behind it. The gusher named “Spindletop” reached skyward for its place in history, pouring forth 100,000 barrels a day of liquid black wealth, providing people with more energy than they had ever dreamed possible. The third era of energy, the Era of Oil, had begun.
Oil made many things possible. One of these was individual transportation. Oil provided the low-cost, easily handled fuels necessary for practical internal combustion engines. This in turn led to practical automobiles and then to airplanes. Due to its ability to travel long distances, the automobile rapidly moved from the status of a rich man’s toy to a necessity, becoming the principle mode of everyday transportation. A massive new industry was created to build, distribute, market, and maintain the automobile.
Oil took on the magic of “black gold,” and everyone who found it acquired the Midas touch. The stink of oil refineries became the smell of money. Vast fortunes were pumped from the ground to build yet another giant industry — the business of selling energy in liquid form. It was to become the biggest business of all.
The United States economy flourished under this diet of cheap energy. Farm machines were built that greatly multiplied a farmer’s productivity. Automobiles provided recreation as well as commerce. People could afford to travel long distances and see more of our vast land. Oil and its partner, natural gas, provided comfortable, clean heat for homes and industry. Process heating for industry provided a new and better approach for fabricating products. Productivity was raised higher and higher, resulting in more leisure time for the average worker. Prices were reduced. The standard of living rose continuously. It was no longer a question of scratching out a bare existence, but rather a question of how best to utilize one’s free time.
The golden age of oil lasted for three-quarters of a century before its luster began to tarnish. During that time, the United States enjoyed the position of dominating the world economy. Travel was cheap, and most garages contained two cars. Americans drove instead of walked. The ability to choose whom to ride with, and where and when to travel, gave us unprecedented personal freedom. Cars were big, comfortable, and fast. Industry had total freedom to develop without serious worry about energy sources or consumption. Our homes were heated and air-conditioned to comfortable levels. As air-conditioning gave us the ability to be comfortable even in the hot, humid climates, the southern part of our nation blossomed. People had control over their environment, which gave them a choice of where to live regardless of climate. Energy costs were incidental to the general cost of living.
Even today, oil and natural gas supply 60.6% of the world’s energy consumption and 65.5% of the United States’ energy. It is no longer cheap, however.
The Water Wheel Comes of Age
During this golden age of low-cost energy based on oil and gas, other alternative energy systems had to be very good to compete. As is true in all fields, there is no single solution to meet all needs. This is certainly true with energy. Oil and gas provided the major energy base and established the price standard, but the emergence of electric power as a better form of energy for certain applications, such as lighting, led to the need to develop better electricity-generating methods. Key among these in some parts of the country was development of hydroelectric power plants. Two major areas were the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest.
Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State was the product of a few men’s dreams to convert the arid desert areas of central and eastern Washington into a garden by damming the mighty Columbia River and pumping water into a vast irrigation system. Electricity was to be a by-product. The electric power not used for pumping water was going to be sold to help defray construction costs. This dream, which my father and his partner participated in, was not easily sold to a hard-nosed Congress that could see neither the need for more food production nor how all that electricity could possibly be used. It took nearly two decades of persuasion and a deep economic depression to bring the nation to the point of committing the massive funds required. The real incentive at the time was jobs. The construction of Grand Coulee Dam drew workers from all over the nation during the Great Depression — a period when a job was one of the most precious commodities of all.
Grand Coulee and other dams in the Pacific Northwest provided an asset beyond the wildest dreams of the original visionaries. Not only was the desert turned into a garden, but electric power was produced in such quantities and at such low costs that new industries bloomed, particularly energy-intensive industries such as aluminum production. American heavy bombers pounded Germany and Japan during World War II flying on wings made from aluminum produced with the aid of low-cost electricity from hydroelectric power plants. The initial cost of the dams and generators was high, but the power produced was massive and the source, water, was free.
The story of the Tennessee Valley Authority has many similarities. With the build-up of electric power generating capacity, a quiet rural area was converted into a dynamic, growing, vital part of the nation. The availability of abundant low-cost electricity sparked economic expansion of industry and jobs and raised the basic standard of living.
Grand Coulee Dam has changed from a public works project conceived to irrigate land into one of the largest and most economical power plants in the world. However, there is limited water flow in the nation’s rivers, and with 11 dams, the Columbia has given its all. The rest of the world’s waterways have also been extensively developed, but the total global energy contribution of hydroelectric power is only 6.2%.
The Atomic Age Dawns
The atomic age introduced another energy competitor to the scene. Nuclear power plants became the promise of the future. The plants tapped the energy of the atom with its attendant large energy release from a very small amount of fuel. Unfortunately, the conversion from atomic heat energy to electricity involves a thermodynamic process of converting thermal energy to mechanical energy, and finally to electricity. This laborious cycle has proven to be of low efficiency and requires very sophisticated machinery. An added problem is nuclear energy’s attendant radiation dangers. These dangers have taken many forms — the basic fuel has some radioactivity, and it must be processed into fuel-grade materials. It causes contamination of the machinery and working fluids in the reactor. It also poses a problem in disposing of the leftover wastes. Even so, electric power generated from a well-designed and operated atomic power plant proved to be reasonably economical. Atomic power plants now provide 5.8% of world energy use.
Coal has continued to be an energy contributor where it is economical to mine, providing lower cost electric power than other sources. Its use as a fuel has become limited primarily to electric power plants and to large industrial users who could control the environmental impact. It still provides 27.2% of the world’s energy.
When we consider a country’s standard of living and look back through history to search for common patterns, we soon find that there are two factors so similar that it is hard to conclude anything except that they are interrelated. These two factors are the growth of the gross national product and the growth of that country’s energy consumption. The gross national product is a basic measurement of the economic viability of a nation and an indicator of the people’s standard of living. Interestingly, energy growth has to occur at a higher rate than the gross national product or a nation does not progress. There are variations in the pattern caused by world events, such as the 1973 oil embargo and the heavy concentration of military hardware manufactured in the Soviet block nations in the past, but these variations tend to confirm the relationship.
With the advent of the oil embargo of 1973-74 our energy use was dramatically reduced by serious conservation measures. At first the effort was to reduce consumption by simply restricting usage. As time went by this was replaced by improved efficiencies so that many of our previous levels of endeavor could be resumed at a lower energy consumption rate. Improvements in efficiency can only be carried so far, however, until a point of diminishing returns is reached. Conservation is, after all, the organization of scarcity. Many areas of energy use have reached that point, and usage has started to grow again. When conservation is carried too far or the price continues to rise, the economy suffers. A good example today is the airline industry, which has been suffering crippling losses due largely to spiraling fuel costs. Most airlines already operate the new and very fuel-efficient planes.
The former Soviet Union offers a different case. They had a fairly high energy consumption level that did not result in a correspondingly high standard of living, because so much of the energy was oriented to building and operating a very large military force. In addition, their fuel-consuming systems were relatively inefficient in addition to being in a very cold climate.
The United States has had the highest consumption of energy per person of any of the major nations. It also has had one of the highest standards of living. Many people might argue with that statement, but in traveling the world, I have seen that although there are some nations that are comparable, no large nation exceeds the US.
However, the issue is not whether the United States has the highest standard of living. The real issue is what energy means to the rest of the countries of the world. The answer is simple. If other nations cannot have low-cost energy, they have no hope of emerging into a high standard of living and the majority of their people will remain at the subsistence level. If this situation is to change, the world’s energy use has to rise to levels many times the current consumption. The United States alone has 4-1/2% of the world’s population, yet consumes over 25% of the world’s energy output. If the rest of the world were to rise to only half the level of the United States, world energy consumption would be about three times the current usage. What would oil cost per barrel if it had to supply a demand of that magnitude? What hope is there for the underdeveloped nations?