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Saturday, Feb 19, 2005

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Energy is a very subtle concept, too difficult to get right

D. Murali

WITH the promise of Aiyar's pipelines on one side and Natwar's buses on the other, it shouldn't really bother us if we lost out to Pakistan on cricket pitches that members of certain political parties love to dig up. When oil suddenly becomes as interesting as foreign affairs, we should be able to watch battles being bowled and batted rather than bombed and bayoneted, putting big brother out of a bothersome business.

Even as diplomacy seems to emerge from a deep hole and graduates to energetic handshakes, I pick up The Bottomless Well, by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills, published by Basic Books ( , for it is about `why we will never run out of energy'. Don't rev up your rigs because the authors see not oil but logic as the solution to the energy crisis.

"Energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get it right," is a quote of Richard Feynman that may explain why most of us know just the wrong things about energy, as the authors would din in. On the supply side, we have grown up with the propaganda that our consumption is a steadfast march towards total depletion. To shatter such thinking, Huber and Mills write that energy supplies are unlimited; "it is energetic order that's scarce." Thus, you should bet on imposing logic and order "on the mountains and catacombs of energy that surround and envelop us" instead of relying only on "addition of reserves, development of new fuels or the husbanding of known resources."

If that sounds like an uphill task, know that on the demand side too, we are wrong, even more. "Our main use of energy isn't lighting, locomotion, or cooling." What then? More energy is used for extracting, refining, processing and purifying energy. Again, we tend to think that energy-efficient engines and motors will help us save on consumption; quite unlikely, argue the authors, because "demand for energy is as insatiable as demand for information, time, order, and life itself."

The book is important for the seven heresies that it propounds. Such as, that the cost of energy is not so much dependent on the cost of fuel but on "the cost of hardware we use to refine and process the fuel." Another dissenting thought is that raw fuels are not running out, for "the faster we extract and burn them, the faster we find still more."

To shake off the shock of heterodoxy, rewind to four billion years ago. Then, "Earth captured no solar energy at all, because there was no life." With the coming of life came the capture of consumption of energy in the biosphere; with a thicker life on the planet's surface, the biosphere managed to capture more energy, create more life, and also "deposited huge amounts of biological debris underground." Then came `a new form of life' — "a scavenger capable of feeding not just on fresh carrion but on the debris itself."

I can hear that muted `yuk' of yours, but the authors assure you that energy is neither scarce nor costly. "Natural radioactivity in the Earth produces about 1,000 Quads of thermal energy per year," is a statistic about underground activity. And 5 million Quads reaches the globe annually from the sun; this is "ten thousand times as much as humanity consumes in the form of fossil fuels, crops, and wood."

Isn't that enough and more, you ask, and pose the very questions that authors pre-empt with. Such as: "If energy is so abundant, why does it cost so much at the gas pump? If bacteria can build nuclear reactors, why do electric utilities send us hefty bills every month?"

While 30 per cent of Quads that we produce is used as heat itself, in "ovens, dryers, and welders", another 30 goes into transportation, spinning shafts in combustion engines, where again generators are run to produce electricity for the vehicle. What about the balance 40 per cent? It goes into generating electricity. Which is why "electricity is far more expensive than mechanical and thermal alternatives," argue the authors.

Computer grade power, backed by uninterruptible power sources and layers of power-conditioning electronics, cost $3 or more per kWh, in comparison to 10 cents per kWh for unreliable grid power, explains a chart on the `price of power'.

Largest capital spending is for "a new tier of hardware that produces very-high-quality electricity, sound microwaves, laser light, X-rays, magnetic pulses, and such." Precise power is what's needed "to active gigahertz-speed (GHz) silicon chips, lasers, ultrasound machines, magnetic resonance imagers, and high-speed wireless telecommunications systems."

A chapter titled `Power, productivity, jobs, and GDP' explodes the productivity myth — that it leads to unemployment. "The more productive a workforce becomes, the more payrolls expand, and the more new jobs emerge."

The chapter also criticises the policy of emerging economic powers such as India, where power is a lot cheaper than in the US, because of "getting it the old-fashioned forget-the-environment way," and "there is little fuss or bother about protecting the river or scrubbing the smoke." Do we have defences?

There are interesting equations in the book. For instance, "A quad's worth of wood is a huge forest. Pound for pound, coal stores about twice as much heat... And a gram of U-235 is worth about four tons of coal."

Similarly, to understand how much is 1 gigawatt (GW) of kinetic power, imagine "a vast parking lot filled with 10,000 Pontiacs": Let all the drivers start their engines, shift into neutral, floor their accelerators, and rev up to the red line on the tachometer, which is when if you total up the energy produced by all the engines you'd get 1 GW.

Yet another equation is about per capita use: "If we measure the work of machines by the energy used to power their labour, every person in America is now served by the equivalent of about two hundred human servants."

Efficiency in energy utilisation doesn't lead to a lower demand for energy because "more people do more, and do it faster", swamping any gains from efficiency. Thus, the motorist "accelerates too rapidly", trying to get his money's worth to enjoy "the amenities of motoring". Then comes a seemingly deviant proposition — that technologies boosting efficiency "are those that burn fuel faster, in less space." And that means more energy used.

The authors predict a future when, if we choose to keep digging, "6-inch diameter pulsed beams produced by advanced high-power lasers will replace rotary mechanical drills, and bundles of optical fibre will channel the energy down the 5-mile borehole, with lenses at the end to focus the laser light on the rock face." A swell read worth digging into for the unusually positive twist it offers to oil logic.

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