The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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The Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 08/15/08

The following is a featured essay in the current edition of Modern Age (50, no. 2; Spring 2008).

The world demand for energy is rapidly increasing. We need energy to warm our homes, to cook our meals, to travel and communicate, and to power our factories. The amount of energy available to us determines not only our standard of living, but also how long we live. Detailed statistics from many counties show that in countries where the available energy is 0.15 tons of coal equivalent per person per year the average life expectancy is about forty years, whereas countries in Europe and America where the available energy is a hundred times greater have an average life expectancy of about seventy-five years. It is well to remember that a shortage of energy is a minor inconvenience to us, but for people in poorer countries it is a matter of life and death.

The world energy demand is increasing due to population growth and to rising living standards. World population in doubling about every thirty-five years, though the rate of growth is very different in different countries. The world energy use is doubling every fourteen years and the need is increasing faster still. One of the main energy sources is oil and the rate of production is expected to peak in the next few years. There are still plentiful supplies of coal, the other principal energy source, but it is even more seriously polluting than oil, leading to acid rain and climate change. This combination of increasing need and diminishing supply constitutes the energy crisis. The world urgently needs a clean energy source that is able to meet world energy needs.

This is without doubt the most serious problem facing mankind. If we simply let things take their course, the world is heading for a catastrophe during the present century. To see what can be done about it, all possible energy sources have to be critically examined and their potential evaluated. [1]

Before considering the various energy sources in detail it is useful to list some of the difficulties in doing so. These arise partly from the complicated nature of the subject, which involves a range of scientific and technological specialties, and partly from the fierce political debates that surround it. The only way to assess the various criteria is to express them numerically as far as possible. Without the numbers it is all just a matter of words spiced with emotion, and it is never possible to reach an objective decision. These numbers seldom have the precision of scientific measurements, and some of them are inherently imprecise but it is better to have approximate numbers rather than no numbers at all. It is important to distinguish between precise measurements, reasonable estimates, guesses, commercial or political propaganda, and speculations. The speculations can be plausible and in accord with known scientific laws, or in contradiction to such laws. A further complication is that new scientific data often alter the picture; this is notably the case for climate change. The people providing the information can be completely objective, or they can be strongly influenced by commercial and political concerns.

The criteria used to assess the various energy sources are their capacity, reliability, cost, safety, and effects on the environment. No single source satisfies all these criteria so an energy mix is essential for each country. The optimum energy mix depends on the natural resources of that country, and so there is no general solution; each country must be considered separately.

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