The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 16, 2017

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

No energy source is completely safe, so it is relatively easy to make a case against any particular source by emphasizing its hazards. What is needed is an objective comparison between the hazards of all the energy sources, based on numbers. This may be done by estimating the numbers of workers killed and injured in the course of producing a stated amount of electricity. This excludes the contribution of long-term effects. It is worth mentioning that the casualties due to energy production are small compared with those due to natural disasters. Thus, for example, the Chinese Seismological Bureau estimated that in the years from 1949 to 1976 about 27 million people died and 76 million were injured following about a hundred earthquakes. Huge numbers were also killed by tsunamis and hurricanes.

Every energy source has to be constructed and maintained, and this requires energy. It is thus some time before the energy produced by a device is sufficient to pay back the energy used initially. This payback time is an important parameter when comparing energy sources, but data are rather sparse.

There is one general classification of energy sources that provides a useful guide. This is the degree of concentration. To do anything useful the energy must be concentrated. Energy sources can be divided into three categories: the concentrated sources wood, oil, coal, gas, and nuclear; the intermediate category of hydro which is partly concentrated by the mountain valleys; and the least concentrated such as wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and tidal. These sources contain vast amounts of energy but it is thinly spread and only becomes useful when it is concentrated.

We tend to think that environmental degradation is a recent problem, beginning only with the Industrial Revolution; but in ancient times, when wood was the main fuel, the forests of the Mediterranean were cut down, often leaving deserts. Later on, many of the forests of northern Europe were also cut down for fuel. Wood together with crop residues and dried animal dung is still the principal fuel for most people in poorer countries. This practice impoverishes the soil and makes more deserts. Other ancient energy sources like windmills and waterwheels, although less polluting, produce limited quantities of power. The windmill is especially unreliable, although the waterwheel has developed into hydroelectric power in modern times.

Before considering the possible energy sources individually it is useful to make a few general remarks. While it is essential to express as much as possible numerically, the limitations on the numbers must be borne in mind. These numbers are vital to a proper assessment but are inevitably approximate. They differ from one county to another, and vary with time as new safety measures are introduced. They include all the direct hazards; in the case of coal for example, they include mining and transport hazards as well as those involved in the day to day running of the power stations. The manufacture of safety devices in factories brings with it more hazards, so it is just not possible to make any energy generating device absolutely safe.

The costs of energy generation vary from one country to another and with the distance from mine to power station, where appropriate. Power stations remain in operation for many decades, and during that time inflation affects the costs. The rate of interest on the dividends paid to the shareholders has a critical effect on the final cost.

The power output from energy generating devices estimated by the designer often differs substantially from what is actually achieved. It is therefore necessary to base figures for the power output and the costs on actual operating experience over a number of years. It is thus practically impossible to evaluate a new device without running it for several years.

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