Keeping ahead of the oil curve and thermodynamics

Rethinking Energy: conservation, curtailment, cfficiency and appropriate technology

……………..Energy is fundamental but one of the challenges of understanding energy in today’s’ world is that we are so unaware of how much we use or what the impacts of its use are. Taking more responsibility for how we use energy is the starting point.

In order to understand better our use of energy it is useful to consider the laws of thermodynamics, and how they impose absolute limits on energy consumption in society. By understanding this we will be able to make better choices about the use of energy in society.

Howard Odum {Odum, H., Odum, E. Energy Basis for Man and Nature 1976} has done much to show how energy is fundamental to not just the physical world, but also the social and even the psychological world:

“Citizens who think of energy as simply one commodity, separate from matter, information, art, and human spirit, must learn that everything has an energy component. The more intangible and valuable something is the more it costs in energy. And the more intangible a value is the more energy value is lost when it deteriorates or is lost”.

Thus, energy is not just for physicists: everyone in all sectors of society should become energy literate.

Odum explains the Laws of Thermodynamics in the following way:

  1. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. This is known as the Law of Conservation of Energy. We cannot “create” new sources of energy: either we use non-renewable sources which are essentially extracted from holes in the ground- including oil, gas and uranium- or we are confined to the availability of ambient solar energy that arrives on the planet each day. Thus, burning wood is renewable because trees can re-grow, but if we use the resource faster than the replenishment rate, it is no longer sustainable.
  2. The Law of Degradation of Energy. Without compensating changes elsewhere, heat can flow only from a hotter to a colder body. This is the law of entropy- the tendency for heat energy to become progressively more diffuse over time.
  3. Systems which use energy best survive. The maximum power principle explains that systems which use energy the most effectively are more likely to survive longer.

These energy laws together can be summed up by the concept of limits: there are absolute physical and natural limits to human activity on the planet, and we need to bring a deep understanding of this into every area of society.

One of the reasons it is so hard to accept the reality of these energy laws is that cheap oil has effectively been a source of “free” energy, allowing humans for one or two generations to escape the natural laws that hold all other life forms in check. With the rapid rise in technology, particularly computer processing power and communications technology, we have created a compelling illusion that we can delay pay-back time indefinitely.

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