Introduction to the Future of Energy
Energy has a key role in our life and work. All through history we got better at taking advantage of the natural sources of energy to achieve really amazing things.
For thousands of years we counted only with the chemical energy of food (the famous calories). One of our first improvements was to invent and handle the tools that allowed us to hunt. Later, like 700.000 years ago, we were able to cook using fire. Imagine that not having to catch food with our hands and not eating raw meat any more was a substantial progress for our energetic availability because we could digest it. But, anyway, we had to chase that food and running consumes a lot of energy (how funny is that now we run on purpose to burn the calories we over-eat, right?)
That is why the first big energetic leap was 17.000 years ago when we managed to domesticate animals and, of course, a few thousand years later when we learnt to cultivate. That gave us an energy plus that had enormous consequences because not being nomads anymore allowed us to live on a steady place and generated communities that are the foundations of modern societies. With agriculture and cattle raising something incredible appeared: a group of people that dedicated themselves just to think and govern while the rest of the population worked for them. That would have never been possible without an energy surplus.
Until then, we still depended on our muscle capacity to handle tools and plowing. But that changed in 200 AD when got better at using mills. We basically had two new sources of power external to our bodies (water and wind strength) that were pretty infinite for the needs of the time. Of course that, if we are good in anything is in not stopping once we learn how to take advantage of a natural resource. The extra energy generated by mills was not simply used to replace human power, but to multiply it, giving us the possibility to grinding more grains, travel further on our ships and even manufacture hydraulic machines to produce steel.
The strength of our arms was no longer society’s main energy source and that was enough to be thankful to mills. But their problem was that they didn’t give us energy where and when we needed it. Work could only be generated (energy = ability to do work!) where the mill was and when the water had enough flow rate or the wind was blowing. It was not possible to neither storage nor transport energy. Believe it or not, today the problem is quite the same.
300 years ago coal started to be seriously used as fuel and that changed the course of history. The great invention of the XVII century was Mr. James Watt’s steam machine. How did it worked? Coal was burned to heat water that was transformed into steam and the pressure of that steam was used to move the machine. That solved the problem of mills, as coal could be easily transported and used when and where we pleased.
Around the XIX coal surpassed wood as the fuel for heating water at the same time the steam machine surpassed mills in the ability to do work. Since then, the per capita consume of energy has grown 4 times while the world population grew 7 times, so the global energy consumption has grown 4 x 7 = 28 times!
Wait, there’s more. In less than 40 years, around 2050, the global energy consumption will double and it will probably double again reaching the end of the century!
This arouses several questions: Where are we getting so much energy from? I guess we won’t start running for our food again… What changes will this grown in consumption imply? How can the different industries be prepared for these changes? And what about the countries? If I’m a regular person, should I care? What comes next?
In my posts I’ll try to answer those doubts and some more without getting to technical and basing myself on existing info, expert opinions and my own personal speculations.
Hope you enjoy the ride.
This is an English version of the book The Future of Energy specially translated for Sandbox Blog. The original full book in Spanish can be read for free in http://institutobaikal.com/libros/el-futuro-de-la-energia/.
© Alexis Caporale 2014
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