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‘The Bottomless Well’ – a Great Book about Energy

If you want to read one of the best books ever written about energy, read the 2005 publication called The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy (Basic Books).

 

Written by Peter W. Huber of the Manhattan Institute and physicist Mark P. Mills, this no-nonsense and sometimes very technical publication explains in only 198 pages the facts and the myths about energy production and consumption. It is a fascinating read.

 

The authors begin by pointing out that America today consumes 100 quadrillion British Thermal Units of energy every year (compared to 7 Quads in 1910) but that we cannot stretch our energy supplies through efficiency nor by using less energy by, for example, taxing it and making it more expensive.

 

In fact, the authors point out in startling fashion that efficiency standards actually increase energy consumption, contrary to accepted enviro gospel. How? Because efficient air conditioners, for instance, have induced tens of millions of Northerners to move to the sultry Southern United States. And all those people using all those efficient air conditioners have massively increased the total amount of energy consumed by air conditioning.

 

The lethargists, on the other hand, simply want us to use less energy, which the authors claim will lead us to a less productive society with a lower standard of living.

 

Another tenet of this book, as stated in the subtitle, is that we will never run out of energy because technology builds on itself and allow us to constantly find and refine new energy sources. This is reflected in the fact that our known energy reserves today are more than ever before, and that advancing technology has produced super-efficient techniques like new oil-drilling methods and even nuclear power, which is millions of times more efficient (by weight) than coal burning for electrical generation.

 

According to Hansen Saleri, a petroleum reservoir management specialist writing in the Wall Street Journal on March 4, 2008, the world currently has 12 to 16 times as much oil in known reserves (crude oil, oil shale, oil sands etc.) as man has used already. And that excludes the fact that most of the world is unexplored (Antarctica, Greenland, Siberia etc.) or underexplored (Canada, the Middle East, China, Africa, the US, offshore worldwide etc.) Massive oil and gas finds in the United States recently back up Huber’s and Mills’ theory.

 

Mills and Huber also point out that our consumption of electricity is rising proportionately much faster than our overall energy consumption because electricity is so useful and versatile. Electricity, the most refined and flexible energy source of all, can be pinpointed in minute quantities to energize the microchips in a home computer or, on the other hand, can power a subway train or a huge water pump in a skyscraper.

 

The 100 Quads of American energy are used 40% for electrical generation. And production of electricity is much more efficient than transportation uses because we build big, efficient power plants, up to 1,000 megawatts, that take advantage of Economies of Scale on the order of 5 to 10 times the efficiency of automotive power. This is akin to the triple efficiency of a single 100-car freight train versus 100 separate trailer trucks.

 

On the other hand, electricity generation is the most expensive form of energy because the conversion and distribution process – the power-plant boilers, turbines, generators, power lines, substations etc. – require high capital spending. Yet we are headed inexorably toward using more and more electricity, the authors state.

 

And this presents an interesting economic paradox – that the actual cost of the raw fuel used to generate electricity (coal, uranium) is less and less significant in the overall economic equation of creating this increasingly vital energy source.

 

The ‘virtue of waste’ mentioned in the book’s subtitle is not what you might think. It refers to the production of ‘waste’ byproducts like heat from a car engine that makes the engine’s power possible. Without a differential between the ‘cold side” and the ‘hot side’ of the engine, say Huber and Mills, there would be no energy produced. The bigger the differential, the more energy is produced.

 

This book is endlessly fascinating with charts and graphs galore. One shows that that energy ‘entropy’, or waste heat, is shed most in energy forms that are the best ordered, the fastest and the most compact. The graph shows that a boiler gives off little relative heat compared to the amount given off by a more efficient and more compact internal combustion automobile engine while at the top is a very efficient laser. Amazing and informative.  

 

Write the authors: ‘To structure, organize, move and increase order – of anything anywhere – you have to add high-grade energy at one end, and then discard some fraction of it in the form of low-grade heat at the other.’

 

This truly is a thinking person’s book.

 

Later on, The Bottomless Well shows how the cost of illumination has tumbled precipitously in the last 200 years, while we moan about our electric bills.

 

We are so spoiled and don’t even know it.

 

In another section, the authors point out how the energy cost of transmitting units of information has dropped drastically in the last 100 years (from primitive radios and telephones to the modern internet), while overall energy consumption has risen just as dramatically.  

 

Another graph shows that GDP output has risen much faster than energy consumption because power multiplies on itself and increases efficiency.

 

This book is full of all sorts of arcane and wonderfully informative data. It will really make you think hard. Please read this captivating tome if you want to better understand how we use energy, and why our energy future is not anywhere near as dire as certain people want us to think.

 

Please visit my website at www.nikitas3.com for more. You can print out for free my book, Right Is Right, which explains why only conservatism can maintain our freedom and prosperity.

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