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The Bottomless Well: How Energy Consumption Creates More Energy

Yesterday’s excerpt from Daniel Yergin’s new book The Quest showed how even preeminent scientists have fallen for poor predictions about future energy supplies. Today’s excerpt explains why. In their myth-crushing book The Bottomless Well: The twilight of fuel, the virtue of waste, and why we will never run out of energy, Peter Huber and Mark Mills argue that the quantity of raw fuel matters less to energy security than our ability (both technological and political) to extract the fuel. In this passage, they make the counter-intuitive point (one of many in this book) that energy consumption, rather than limit our supply of energy, actually increases it.  

Though he was prepared to go quite a bit deeper when he turned on his steam-powered drill in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, in 1859, Colonel Edwin Drake struck oil at 69 feet. The first “deep water” oil wells stood in 100 feet of water in 1954. Today, they reach through 10,000 feet of water, 20,000 feet of vertical rock, and another 30,000 feet of horizontal rock.

Yet over the long term, the price of oil has held remarkably steady. Ten-mile oil costs less than 69-feet oil did, and about the same as one-mile oil did two decades ago. Production costs in the hostile waters of the Statfjord oil fields of the North Sea are not very dfiferent from the costs at the historic Spindletop fields of southeast Texas a century ago. There have been price spikes and sags, but they have been tied to political and regulatory instabilities, not discovery and extraction costs. This record is all the more remarkable when one considers that the amount of oil extracted has risen year after year. Cumulative production from U.S. wells. alone has surpassed a hundred billion barrels.

The historical trends defy all intuition. It is easy enough to thank human ingenuity for the relatively steady price of a finite and dwindling resource and leave it at that. But there is a second part to this story: it is energy itself that begets more energy. Electrically powered robots pursue new supplies of oil at the bottom of the ocean. Electricity purifies and dopes the silicon that becomes the photovoltaic cell that generates more electricity. Lasers enrich uranium that generates more electricity that powers more lasers. Power pursues the energy that produces the power.

“Energy supply” is determined not by “what’s out there” but by how good we are at finding and extracting it. What is scarce is not raw energy but the drive and the logic that is able to locate, purify, and channel it to our own ends–the creation of still more logic paramount among them. For the first two centuries of industrial history, the powered technologies used to find and extract fuels improved faster than the horizon of supply receded. Hence our blue-whale energy economy. End users consume increasingly compact and intense forms of high-grade power, relying on suppliers to pursue and capture increasingly distant, dispersed, and dilute sources of raw fuel. The gap is forever widening, as the history of oil extraction reveals, but that doesn’t stop us–the more energy we consume, the more we capture. It’s a chain reaction, and it spirals up, not down. It is, if you will, a perpetual motion machine.

The machine is running faster today than ever before, but it has been running for quite some time. Four billion years ago, life on Earth capture no solar energy at all, because there was no life. Life then got a foothold, and the capture and consumption of energy in the biosphere has been rising ever since. The thicker life grew on the surface of the planet, the more energy the biosphere managed to capture. And it used all that energy to create more life. Along the way it deposited huge amounts of biological debris underground. A new form of life then emerged, a scavenger capable of feeding not just on fresh carrion but on the debris itself. James Watt invented a machine to dig up the debris more efficiently–his coal-fired steam engine was designed, initially, to pump out the water that kept flooding the coal mines. In exactly the same manner, though on a far tinier scale, Enrico Fermi built the first fission reactor by using one neutron emitted by a uranium atom to kick out two neutrons from other uranium atoms nearby.

None of these processes produces “perpetual motion” in the strict thermodynamic sense, of course–all of them just improve on the process of seizing energy from somewhere else. Living green plants still capture today’s solar energy about six times faster than we humans are able to dig up yesterday’s solar energy preserved in fossil fuels, but we’ll overtake the rest of nature in due course. Perhaps someday we’ll get to the point where we, too, can capture our energy directly from the sun. There’s plenty of sunlight to spare–green plants currently only capture only about one three-thousandths of the golden cascade of solar power that reaches the Earth’s surface.

But whether we catch our solar energy live, dig it up in fossilized form, or mine uranium instead is really just a detail. The one certainty is that we will extract more nergy from our environment, not less. Everything we think we know about “running out of energy” isn’t just muddled and wrong; it’s the exact opposite of the truth. The more energy we capture and put to use, the more readily we will capture still more.

(Excerpted from Chapter 1, pages 2-5)

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