My Obsession With Energy

I have been involved with startups during my career. One aphorism around startups is, first you survive. What that means is that it does not matter that you desperately need people or a piece of hardware or a software program. If you have not found a way to survive, nothing else matters.

 

Energy is existential. When solving the energy problem, first you survive.

Once you get a couple of concepts down, it is not that complicated.

The problem is that we take cheap energy for granted, when it is actually an incredible miracle. From the ability to drill thousands of feet under oceans to being able to refine energy to being able to transport energy to every nook and cranny in the nation, it is simply remarkable.

Just being able to pay essentially nothing to have all the light you want would have been unthinkable and marvelous to all humans during all of human history until about 100 years ago. Much less being able to power two hundred horses of transportation and huge factories, creating hundreds of thousands of different goods.

Since we don't understand it, we make myriad, simple assumptions about energy that are false.

We need to think about and appreciate the concept that energy provides the foundation for and enables EVERYTHING.

Stop for a moment and think about a world without electricity or gasoline. Hint: the first thing that happens is that you starve.

A world without natural gas would collapse because of a lack of fertilizer necessary to grow food to feed almost 8 billion people.

Money is nothing more than a call on energy. What that means is that money is basically the ability to acquire things in the future. Those future things are ultimately dependent on energy. Therefore, in the end, money is a way to claim things that are enabled by energy. No energy, no things, worthless money.

We have gone through an age of some 70 years of incredible, unprecedented prosperity that will probably never come again. Congratulate yourself for living at the pinnacle of human prosperity ... and then mourn for future generations.

What we have achieved is simply unsustainable. For the United States, it was due in a large part to circumstances after World War II. For the rest of the world, particularly the Western world, it was largely due to the rise of the United States.

Now, the trend is unwinding. The US is becoming crippled, natural resources are becoming depleted and the energy that was the key to success is now viewed as having the profound negative outcome of leading to global warming.

Short of nuclear fusion, there are no high-density energy sources to replace fossil fuels. (Nuclear fission is a partial solution.)

Wind and solar can only do part of the job.

Even the Energy Returned on Energy Invested for crude oil and natural gas is decreasing rapidly as we have to go "colder and deeper" to find oil. In the early days of oil, EROI for oil and natural gas was greater than 100:1. Today it is less than 8:1. It is estimated that 14:1 is required to run our complex society.

Therefore, the foundation of our culture, financial system and wealth is eroding. Our culture, financial system and wealth will therefore erode.

We need to look at this transition as a complicated problem with several constraints and significant trade-offs.

We are not doing that.

The problem is human nature, combined with democracy.

Humans have an average IQ of 100, so that nuance and complexity are lost on most people.

Politicians want to win votes, so discussions are at a 7th grade level, at times reaching all the way to 9th grade.

Humans have a short attention span, so that only urgent things capture their attention.

Therefore the, "we're all gonna die," message around global warming is used to create that urgency.

If it's urgent to eliminate fossil fuels and we are all going to die, we need to eliminate fossil fuels NOW.

Only, there are no effective alternatives to fossil fuels and will not be for decades (or perhaps ever), so we are creating a huge chasm - a period during which we will not have enough energy. And we are digging that chasm all by ourselves.

We are creating our own suffering.

We are caught between two truths:

  1. Global warming is a significant challenge and using fossil fuels leads to global warming.

  2. There is no alternative to fossil fuels for quite a few decades into the future.

By the way, we are not going to die, and global warming acts over long periods of time, which are discussions for another time. However, the sooner and more effectively we attack global warming, the better.

This is complex and it is nuanced and we are desperately in need of leadership to help us navigate the complexity, the nuance and the trade-offs.

Our current leadership and our prospective leadership are not only not up to the task, they are actively destructive.

There is no good answer. But we are currently choosing self-destruction, and it is highly likely that is the wrong answer.

The other issue is that a significant portion of energy and other natural resources are located in Russia. Now that Russia has adopted an aggressive, militaristic posture, the need to be intelligent and creative about energy is even more important.

Even if we did not have our debt, deficits and entitlements, we would be facing what could even be an existential crisis in energy.

That is why I am obsessed with energy.

We have a very big problem on our hands with no one in leadership having a clue.

We must transition from fossil fuels.

But first, we must survive.