02 March 2005
Energy, the bottomless well
By Jim Pinto
Peter Huber and Mark Mills wrote one of the best-ever books on energy technologies: The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy. It's good reading for engineers and marketers.
No, this is not a book that says oil will run out. Rather it emphasizes that, as humanity advances, more and more energy, if not oil, will inevitably come from the "bottomless well" of human ingenuity, innovation, and progress.
Today, oil is not the dominant fuel of our modern economy; it supplies about 40% of the raw energy we use and mainly sees use for automobiles and transportation. Coal, uranium, gas, and hydroelectric power supply the other 60%. By far the most important use of this not-oil fuel is to produce electricity to power almost everything else.
Electricity, not oil, defines the fast-expanding center of the energy economy. About 60% percent of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) now comes from industries and services that run on electricity. All the fastest growth sectors of the U.S. economy, like info-tech and telecom, depend totally on electricity. Electricity has met more than 85% of the growth in U.S. energy demand over the past 25 years. And electrification is accelerating. Almost everywhere, electrically powered equipment is steadily displacing equipment powered by other forms of energy because electrical equipment is far more precise and ultimately cheaper.
In the automotive sector, gas prices matter less and less, and hybrid engines will most likely lead us to cars propelled by the coal-fired (then nuclear-generated) grid. Expanding energy supplies mean higher productivity, more jobs, and a growing GDP. Across the board, energy isn't the problem; energy is the solution.
Significantly, the automobile is transforming into a sort of giant electrical appliance. Hybrid cars propelled by onboard, gasoline-fired electrical generators are coming. Not just for their fuel efficiency, but because the new electrical drive trains offer much better performance, lower cost, and less weight. Five to 10 years from now, more and more people will be driving giant electrical appliances, or hybrid electric cars.
The upshot: We'll be far less sensitive to the cost of raw fuel than we used to be. Fuel costs represent less than 20% of the typical cost of driving. And we hardly think about raw-fuel costs with virtually all the tools and equipment because it is insignificant when related to the tasks accomplished.
This iconoclastic book twists many of our conventional assumptions around in a remarkable fashion. More efficient cars, engines, and light-bulbs will never lower demand. Instead, they will increase it. Why? Because cheaper and better products stimulate demand and increase total energy usage. As energy becomes more "ordered," waste is a natural byproduct, and the price really doesn't matter very much.
Huber and Mills explain why the demand for energy can only go up. Most of what we think of as "energy waste" is actually beneficial. It signals progress, with energy usage a cheap byproduct. Perhaps because all our worrying about energy, we have proved fantastically clever at developing sources. For two centuries of industrial history, 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.
This book is one of the most significant technology books I have read recently, and it has radically changed my own views on energy conservation and usage. I highly recommend it.
- "The Bottomless Well" – Review the book at Amazon.com
- Peter Huber And Mark Mills On Our Energy Future
- Slate web magazine - The Art of Energy - Huber & Mills
Behind the byline
Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and founder of San Diego-based Action Instruments. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or view his writings at www.JimPinto.com. You can read excerpts from his book, Automation Unplugged at www.jimpinto.com/writings/unplugged.html.
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