The Future of Energy: The history of human energy use


Today’s guest post by Whaleoil reader Bruce Alan Forbes is part of an article he wrote called The Future of Energy with predictions for 2040. As it is an in-depth analysis I have divided it into six posts so that we can discuss each part separately. Subjects to be covered are:

  1. The history of human energy use
  2. Wind power
  3. Solar power
  4. Renewable energy subsidies &?Options for Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions
  5. Nuclear, Gas and Coal-based Generation
  6. Man-made Global Warming and the Great Policy Error

The History of Human Energy Use – from Roman Times to the Present

For thousands of years, human economic and social development proceeded slowly, primarily owing to the lack of an adequate, low-cost supply of energy. In Roman times, the primary sources of energy were manpower and animals. There were some water mills and windmills, but only one known example of a power-driven mass production factory. This lack of large-scale, low-cost energy meant that anything that needed a large power output was extremely expensive and this in turn limited economic and social development.

This situation remained more or less unchanged until Thomas Newcomen built the first practical steam engine in 1712. This was used to pump out the Conygree mine in the United Kingdom. This engine, with an efficiency of less than 0.5%, started the Industrial Revolution. Ever since that year, engineers have strived to improve efficiency. Today?s steam turbine power stations, with up to 100 times better efficiency, supply low-cost electricity to people all over the world.

Because of the availability of low-cost energy, human welfare and standards of living have increased enormously. The average person in the Western world now lives better than a king did 300 years ago. He or she is warmer and better fed, and has access to transport, medical care and education beyond the imagination of anyone even 100 years ago. He or she lives twice as long. This huge increase in welfare has arisen primarily from the burning of fossil fuels and related technological advances.

Major increases in electricity supply are available at low cost by burning fossil fuels or by building nuclear power stations. In some countries, hydropower plays a major part, but in most regions, the remaining potential for this is small. Nuclear power is the safest of all means of generating electricity. The world will need large amounts of power from fossil fuel sources for many decades to come – mainly for electricity generation and for transport. Because modern fossil fuel generators operate at efficiencies not far from their theoretical maxima, there is no possibility of continuing the huge gain in efficiency that has occurred since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The reality is that over the next 25 years, and in the decades beyond, we can continue to advance human development, or we can choose massive carbon dioxide emission reductions – with all the attendant consequences. It is a binary choice – we cannot have both. Despite the stark nature of this choice, many people and governments are doing everything they can to limit the use of low-cost fossil fuel or nuclear-based energy. If they succeed, the consequences will be dire and these will fall heavily upon the poorest people in the richer countries, and on nearly everyone in the poorer countries.

There is a common view that renewable energy should be pursued despite of its high cost, because the world is running out of low-cost energy resources. This is not true. The world has more available energy resources now than it ever had in the past.

For nuclear power, currently confirmed Uranium reserves will last more than 100 years – and much longer if breeder reactors are used. More Uranium will be discovered, and the more abundant Thorium could also be used as nuclear fuel. Together they will be able to provide enough fuel to produce the world?s electricity needs for many centuries.

For fossil fuels, recent advances in fracking techniques, including horizontal drilling, have meant that enormous amounts of gas and oil that were previously inaccessible are now available. By taking only a fraction of worldwide fracking potential into account, those oil and gas reserves already identified can last for more than 50 years, and coal reserves for more than 100 years. This technology, developed in the US by private companies, has revolutionised both production and pricing in the oil and gas industries in the US. The profound effects of the fracking revolution have destroyed the myth of ?peak oil.? This myth caused oil prices to spike above $100/barrel. Prior to ?peak oil? crude prices were historically $20 to $40/barrel. Unless there is a ?hot? war in the Middle East, $25 to $50 crude should once again become normal. The US is also set to become a major exporter of LNG (liquefied natural gas), to take advantage of the extreme current gas price differentials between the US and international prices. US wholesale gas prices are currently about a quarter of those in Germany, for example. Subsidising expensive renewable energy technologies today, in the expectation of high oil and gas prices in the medium-term future, constitutes a gross waste of human, material and financial resources.

For electricity, the introduction of high-voltage grid systems was a huge step forward. These enabled the construction of large power generating stations – often sited near where the fuels – water in the case of hydropower, coal in the case of steam turbines – are located. By connecting many stations together, reliability is increased and the need for reserve capacity reduced. Larger stations are much more efficient, economical and in general, more environmentally friendly.

The grid system has been a major factor in the enormous benefits that reliable, low-cost electricity has brought to much of the world. Regrettably, many activists, politicians and policymakers, with little or no understanding of the principles or complexities of electricity generation, transmission or distribution, are now advocating a return to small-scale generation and/or isolated systems. History and real-world experience tells us that such an approach dramatically reduces reliability and hugely increases costs.