The Science and Politics of Energy – (part one in a series)


Getting our fix of energy…

President Bush’s recent proclamation that we “are addicted” to oil” here in the United States was not saying anything new – we are energy junkies.

A tough analogy, perhaps, but let’s cut to the chase right at the outset.

Even a modest lifestyle in the industrialized world – and especially in the United States – requires an enormous amount of energy to maintain. No one likes being called a junkie, but since the end of World War II, our voracious and unquenchable appetite for energy has become nothing less than a mass, societal addiction.

We’re hooked on energy – specifically to a form that is essentially highly concentrated and available solar energy better known as “fossil fuels”. This solar energy is stored as oil, coal, and natural gas, and what has taken millions of years to create, we have “used up” in a matter of barely centuries.

As with any addiction, this does not mean that we are necessarily bad people, though perhaps often irresponsible to the consequences of our actions. The moral issue now is how soon and to what degree we accept the serious consequences of the high-entropy foundation of our society, and the implication for future generations. A first step is simple acceptance of the reality we all face. A sustainable society need not and should not be an issue of political partisan polarization, though it still is as I write this as is.

I believe it is important that the average citizen be presented with the basic facts regarding the science and politics of our production and use of energy in the early 21st century. With this simple awareness, we can begin to see clearly the consequences of our current energy culture, and make the first steps toward recovery – a sustainable world for future generations.

In the grandiose and so often delusional mind of Man must come the realization that he live within ultimate limits. We are at a time in history where those ultimate limits are being tested; in many cases very likely exceeded.

Now is the time, and this is the generation, to organize our actions with a larger sense of history. What we do today will have consequences far beyond, arguably, any other generation in Man’s relatively short tenure on this Earth.

The Fundamentals:

History, Entropy, and the Fundamental Laws of Energy…

The amount of energy in the universe is constant.

The amount of available energy is not.

Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and only changes from one form of energy to another. This change always moves in one direction, from energy potential to energy dissipation. Available energy to unavailable energy.

This is my humble attempt at paraphrasing the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Vaguely familiar to many, and certainly to those with a semester of physics. But what do these laws really mean to us, living out our nitty-gritty, real-world lives?

Any organized society – or even life itself – requires the consumption of energy to give motion to matter. Energy and matter are two sides of the same coin, as Einstein demonstrated with E=MC2. Either matter is converting to energy, or energy is converting from one form to another as it flows through a system of organized matter.

The conversion always dissipates energy in the process. The amount of energy in the system does not change. The quality of the energy or the amount of usable energy does.

Enter our inescapable companion – Entropy

There is always an increase in entropy, an overall dissipation; from potential energy, to energy in a neutral, steady, or dissipated state.

A pendulum swings freely on its axis, but countless attempts to make it swing forever remain futile. With each sway of the pendulum, energy is dissipated by friction and heat, the usable energy created by the potential of gravity acting on the upward swing is dissipated in the downward, losing more energy through entropy than is gained from gravity with each cycle. No matter how efficient the gearing mechanism, the pendulum winds down to a neutral, motionless state.

There is no perpetual motion machine.

From the simple swing of a clockwork to the complex working of a civilization built upon a carbon based energy culture, the consequences of our perpetual motion experiment become stark.

Fossil fuels provide eighty-five percent of the generated electricity in the United States. Burning these fuels – coal, oil, natural gas (by far the cleanest of the three fossil fuels) – dissipates most of its energy in the form of heat, ultimately belching out some tailpipe, smokestack, or exhaust pipe.

Considering the cost of pollution, the consequences of climate change (clearly underway), increased health risks, the social and political instability created, and rising costs in the extraction of increasingly scarce non-renewable fossil fuels, we begin to see the reality of entropy in our world.

In our next installment we’ll discuss the true cost of energy, “energy cultures” and how they help determine world views, and the rise of the modern world view…

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