The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

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

It is often said that our energy problems could be solved if we used energy more carefully and avoided waste. There is certainly much that can and should be done. We can insulate our homes to conserve heat and avoid heating rooms that are not used. We can turn the heating down and wear more clothing. We can install energy-saving light bulbs. We can walk or use smaller automobiles and avoid unnecessary journeys. If everyone were to carry out these and many similar measures the energy use would be much reduced. It has even been suggested that in this way we can reduce energy use by a factor of four. [2] Some of these measures are easy and some are not. It is much easier, for example, to build an energy-saving house than to modify an existing house. Many of these measures, such as insulating our homes, require new materials that have to be made in factories. This inevitably requires energy, and we have to consider how long it will take to recover the energy expended. The main difficulty is to convince people to change their way of life. Certainly we have a serious obligation to do what we can to reduce energy use, but even if we do we will still need to generate large amounts of energy.

Energy-saving measures are most important. They can ameliorate the situation but are not able to avoid the energy crisis. We must therefore consider how the available sources of energy can be enhanced and used wisely.


Coal, together with oil and natural gas, is one of the fossil fuels, which come from the decay of vegetation many millions of years ago. They are all very reliable sources of energy and are not unreasonably expensive. Their main disadvantage is the pollution they cause, of the land, the sea, and the atmosphere.

The world consumption of coal has risen from 100 millions tons of oil equivalent energy in 1860, to 330 in 1900, to 1300 in 1950 and to 2220 in 2000. In 1950 it was by far the world’s largest energy source, but by 2000 it was easily exceeded by oil. The lifetime of world coal supplies is often calculated by dividing the coal reserves by the annual consumption, and this gives about 250 years. However Lomborg [3] has found that this ratio seems to stay the same from year to year, the increased consumption being balanced by the discovery of new reserves. This cannot go on indefinitely, but we can conclude that the above figure is an underestimate. There is plenty of coal for the foreseeable future.

The main concern about coal is the pollution it causes. A typical coal power station produces as solid waste over a million tons of ash, 21,000 tons of sludge, and half a million tons of gypsum and discharges into the atmosphere eleven million tons of carbon dioxide, 16,000 tons of sulphur dioxide, 29,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, and a thousand tons of dust, plus smaller amounts of aluminium, calcium, iron, potassium, nickel, titanium, and arsenic.

This anthropogenic pollution can be compared with that due to natural causes, such as bush fires due to lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions. Although the short term effects may be severe, the earth has great natural recuperative powers; and once the source of pollution is removed the land, lakes, and seas return to their previous state.

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