Energy: Discovery and Usage

Nothing will happen without energy. The universe is filled with incredible energy that the human race is still in the process of discovering, not to mention utilizing it. Where does all the energy come from? Science has traced it back to the beginning of time when the Big Bang occurred some 13 billion years ago, which created the stars and planets and the rest of the universe. Don’t ask me where the Big Bang originated for nobody knows except perhaps the authors of the Holy Scriptures.

Why is energy so important? Energy is both life and dead matters. How humans discover and utilize energy determines how civilizations progress. A modern civilization is characterized by its high level of energy consumption. Furthermore, a thriving civilization depends on how its people adapt to the use of available energy.

Energy exists in many different forms, visible or otherwise. Some examples are: fire, wind, thunder, lightning, sunlight, heat, ocean currents, the jet stream, coal, oil, natural gas, electricity, biomass, microwave, X-rays, nuclear power, vibrating atoms, motions of subatomic particles, and so on. Despite the long list above, only three fossil fuels have been heavily utilized: oil, coal, and natural gas, together representing about 90% of total energy consumed worldwide. We may add electricity, which is mostly derived by burning coal or natural gas, some by hydro technology. Nuclear energy is relatively new. Solar, wind and biomass are even newer.

There are reasons why oil, coal and natural gas are heavily utilized. First, nature has packed them with high energy content. Second, they are easily portable, especially oil which is a fluid like water but lighter. Third, there exist several huge reserves on land for long-term extraction. As a consequence, a sophisticated system of infrastructure has been built such as refineries, pipelines, tanker fleet, and retail gasoline stations. The world economy has become an oil economy indeed. The oil industry also dominates other important industries such as land transport, shipping, aviation, chemicals, plastics, and agriculture too through the use of chemical fertilizers. Coal has now relegated to mainly electricity generation. The same is true for natural gas although it assumes some importance in home heating and land transport.

With the world economy heavily dependent on oil, a recession follows every time an oil shock comes around. The first two shocks in 1973 and 1979 were supply crunches put up by OPEC. Those coming later are demand pressures especially due to heavy consumption in China, India and other emerging countries. It looks like there is no likelihood for oil prices to come down or stabilize. Herein lies the big challenge. Do we have the capability to produce more oil to satisfy world demand? Are there huge reserves somewhere out there? If not, how can we adapt and substitute oil? What are the plausible alternatives? So far, we have not taken into account the costs of pollution for oil and related industries, especially the complicated consequences of climate change. Can we continue to ignore the costs and grow the economy at any price? Can we sustain growth in a fast degrading environment?

History has shown that humans are able to switch from one source of energy to another. For a long time, people had been deriving power from muscles, horses, cows, and even elephants until the invention of the steam engine around 1775 powered by coal. Later in 1805 with the invention of the internal combustion engine, oil began to take over coal as a new source of energy. Oil has had a good run since then. At present, a host of alternatives are vying to take its place, which all aim to deliver electricity generated from non-fossil fuels to run the electric motor first commercialized around 1875. It will be interesting to see how far electrification can replace oil. A Saudi oil minister once said, “The stone age did not end for lack of stones, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” This statement generally confirms what has happened in history. Does it sound logical specifically for oil? Please see my later essays about oil and alternative energy.

(January 2012)

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