chapter  1
11 Pages

Energy and us

It all hinges on energy-everything we do. At home, energy is important for heating, lighting, and cooking. But, cooking means that we have to have something to cook. Having food requires farming, which means agricultural machinery that operates with fuel, or relying on animals that require their own food sources. Harvested food has to be transported, processed, prepared, and packaged. Packaged food is transported to warehouses and stores for sale to us. Every aspect of daily life depends on a variety of manufactured articles. Not many of us these days weave cloth, turn logs into boards, or make any of the other items we use throughout the day. Manufacturing begins with producing raw materials, which then must be fabricated into useful articles. Manufactured articles must also be transported to stores. Daily activity involves getting out of the home for work, shopping, or socializing. If we walk or bicycle, we use energy from our own muscles for transportation. Carts or carriages pulled by animals, cars or light trucks, buses, trains and airplanes all consume energy in some form. The many uses of energy in the home for warmth, cooking and lighting, together with farming, manufacturing and transportation consume prodigious quantities of energy. Many people in the industrialized world are fortunate to be able to

surround themselves with electrical appliances and gadgets: television,

microwave oven, music system, personal computer, electric razor, hair dryer, refrigerator, lamps, coffee maker, electric clock, electric pencil sharpener, electric tooth brush, power tools, and radio-and, for some of these items, often more than one of each. In many kitchens one can expect to find a stove, a refrigerator, a dishwasher and a microwave oven. What else? A coffee maker, espresso machine, electric can opener, pasta maker, bread maker, crock pot, electric carving knife, toaster or toaster oven (or both), and a blender or food processor. When buying one of these items, nobody worries about whether there will be enough electricity to operate them. If there’s a problem, it’s how to find counter space to use all this stuff, or cabinet space to store it. Even asking whether there would be ‘enough’ electricity to

operate a gadget we’re buying when we get it home probably sounds silly. We assume that we can buy and plug in a limitless number of electric appliances. If we even think of a limit, it’s the number of outlets available for plugging items into. We can even solve that problem if we remember to buy some power strips (that provide five or more electrical outlets from an original single outlet). The assumption about the eternal availability of unlimited quan-

tities of electricity is tested when there is a power failure. When that happens, we might have a momentary bit of panic, but then many of us react to a power failure with a feeling of annoyance or anger. We were watching that TV show, or cooking that meal, or reading that book, feeling that we could do those sorts of things as much as we wanted, any time we wanted, and now, suddenly-no electricity. No TV, no cooking, no reading, no music, the computer may have just died … life’s dark in more ways than one. Not everyone in the world enjoys the lifestyle that’s just been

described for the residents of prosperous, industrialized countries. In too many places in the world, if electricity is available at all, it is only ‘on’ for a limited time each day. A quarter of the world’s population-1.5 billion people-lacks ready access to electricity. In some places, such as Burundi and Rwanda, more than 80% of the population lacks electricity entirely. In the United States, we usually have the same attitude toward

gasoline. We expect to be able to drive without worrying about whether we will be able to buy gasoline whenever and wherever

we need it, and as much as we want. Even at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning some convenience store, somewhere, is open for those who want to buy gasoline. Gasoline seems to be as easily and widely available as water. Gasoline shortages, or sudden price spikes, produce the same anger as electricity outages. As with electricity, the ready availability of gasoline is not the

case everywhere, only in the developed or industrialized nations. The world’s cheapest gasoline is in the Persian Gulf region, in those countries having significant amounts of oil: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait as examples. In many industrialized nations with strong economies, such as Japan and Western Europe, gasoline costs two to three times as much as in the United States. For those people fortunate enough to live in reasonably pros-

perous, industrialized nations, energy is readily and always available at the flick of a switch, stopping at a filling station, or plugging an appliance into a wall socket. The key idea that should come from thinking about how we get through the day is this:

Another way of illustrating our dependence on energy is to consider it from the other perspective: how we would live if the supply of electricity, petroleum products, and natural gas suddenly was not available any more. What would we eat? Foods raised by ourselves or foraged in the outdoors. How would we get around? Most of us would be confined to an area accessible by walking, or on horseback. How would we stay warm? Firewood, if we had access to it, and only for as long as the wood lasted. A few clever persons might rig up solar energy collectors, or figure out how to use windmills or water wheels to produce electricity. What would we use in our daily lives? Clothes, tools, and utensils that we have now, until they broke or wore out. There would be no replacements, except for things made of wood, or wool or cotton cloth. How would we regulate our days? Rise at dawn and go to bed at dark, because there would be little artificial light other than fires. Most peopleespecially city dwellers-might freeze and starve in the dark. Survivors would be reduced to a brutish existence not unlike that experienced by the poor during medieval times. A very few, those

who were competent at subsistence farming and at the manufacturing or repairing of small tools and machinery, might ‘make it.’