Context within NORA
Some sources of energy, especially fossil and nuclear fuel use, add to air and water pollution and/or global warming. Moving air (wind) and water (in rivers used by hydroelectric dams, in ocean currents and tides) are forms of energy themselves, while good air and water is necessary for the growth of plants, whose biomass can be used for fuel.
Energy sources require substantial amounts of land. The entire production and waste chain has to be considered, from mining and processing of fuels (fossil or nuclear), to the production of transport equipment and machinery used in power plants, to power generation and distribution, to the disposal of wastes. In the case of biomass, the land used to grow the plants must be taken into account. Different energy sources differ tremendously in the amount of land required.
Fossil fuels and uranium ore are mined like other minerals, and can potentially be left in the ground or used for other purposes (e.g., plastics in the case of petroleum). A host of minerals is needed in the equipment that is used to make use of the energy potential of both renewable and non-renewable sources of energy, including very common ones (such as iron) and very rare ones (such as “rare earth” minerals for solar panels).
Plants can be used as energy source by being burned. Some domesticated animals (e.g., oxen, horses) can be made to use their energy in our service. The land requirements for our energy uses can destroy habitat for numerous species.
Physical, human-made assets
Many of these structures require constant energy inputs to use at all (e.g., vehicles) or to maintain for our comfort (buildings that need to be heated or cooled). Many have been designed on the assumption that energy is cheap and doesn't matter. It is crucial to make virtually all our machinery, buildings, and entire systems more energy-efficient.
We, as well as all living things, need energy in order to live and to breathe. We need the energy of the sun in order to keep our planet habitable. We humans also use energy to purify water, to grow food, to move ourselves as well as the goods we produce, to produce clothing and shelter, to provide for health and education, and for all of our other economic activities. Most of this energy we obtain through our food and directly from the sun as it warms us, but a substantial amount we obtain by burning fuels or transforming various forms of energy into electric power. Energy is therefore relevant to all our needs.
Although all organizational forms are relevant to energy use, the ones of most direct concern include:
Millions of households around the world provision themselves not only with food and the energy it contains, but also with firewood and other sources of energy. There is increasing potential for households to supply themselves with their own energy from solar and geothermal sources.
Natural resource management cluster
The use of all sorts of energy involves natural resource management, both because energy itself is a natural resource, and the minerals, wind, water, animals and plants that we use for energy are natural resources.
Virtually the entire fossil fuels and nuclear industry, and large parts of solar and wind industries, fall in this cluster, either through oligopoly control of supplies, or in the form of electric utilities.
Free knowledge cluster
This cluster may be key in finding ways toward a more sustainable use of energy in the future.
Understanding patterns of abundance and scarcity
Energy on Earth is abundant. The sun's energy keeps the planet at a far higher temperature than the surrounding space, and thus makes it habitable for millions of life forms. The sun lights up half of the planet at every moment throughout the thickness of the atmosphere. The atmosphere with its winds and pressure systems, the hydrosphere with its rivers and ocean currents, and the biosphere with its amazing diversity of life, transform this energy repeatedly. Humans only tap into a minuscule portion of this energy wealth. However, if we do so unwisely, not only energy, but many other additional resources become scarce.
We use energy in the food that we eat, but this is not the main subject in the “energy” section, since it is discussed within the Needs section on Food. We also use sunlight directly to warm ourselves and out houses, to dry our clothes on clotheslines, or to dry crops in the open air, among many other uses. Apart from these taken-for-granted forms of energy use, we make use of energy derived from the sun (solar, wind, water power, biomass, animal power, fossil fuels which are the remains of long-dead plants), from the Earth's heat (geothermal energy), from gravity (tidal energy, derived from the pull of the moon and sun on the ocean), and nuclear forces.
The forms of energy we use are classified as renewable or non-renewable. Solar, wind, hydro, ocean current, tidal, and some forms of geothermal energy are all renewable in the fullest since, in that no matter how heavily we use them, the energy flows from which they are derived will continue unabated. Other forms of energy are renewable if treated with proper care; this pertains most importantly to biological sources of energy, where we must take care never to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Finally, there are sources of energy that take so long to accumulate that, as far as human perceptions of time are concerned, they exist in a fixed quantity and are non-renewable. This pertains especially to fossil fuels (the dead remains of plants that lived millions of years ago), and to uranium ore as a raw material for nuclear power. While other forms of nuclear power are conceivable, none exist in operational scale today. Non-renewable forms of energy may exist in large quantities in certain places and thus appear abundant (or, in more technical terms, there is a huge stock available), they are ultimately scarce because they will run out if we continue using them indiscriminately.
The environmental impacts associated with various energy forms differ greatly. The use of solar and wind energy has the fewest environmental impacts apart from those associated with the manufacture and disposal of the technologies used to capture them. Small-scale hydro, wave, tidal, ocean current or geothermal power can have similarly limited impacts, but large-scale systems can have impacts on entire ecosystems (e.g., large dams that flood an entire valley). Biomass can be used in sustainable ways if it is kept within limits defined by local ecosystems, but can become very harmful if it exceeds those limits. The use of fossil fuels, particularly at the scale they are used now, leads to the devastation of vast land areas (e.g., mountaintop removal for coal), to air and water pollution (e.g., with particulates, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and acid deposition), and to global warming and all the associated environmental impacts. The use of uranium leads to tremendous impacts due to mining (not least through the radioactive tailings left on the ground), processing into nuclear fuel, and disposal of waste, much of it will remain highly dangerous for a much longer period of time than the Egyptian pyramids have existed (and how long were those secure against marauders?).
The social impacts of mining and energy generation are also huge, ranging from indigenous peoples all over the world deprived of their land and forced to work in the mines in brutal conditions, to German and Polish villages removed in order to make place for mines, to mountaintop removal in the Appalachians, to the disasters associated with Chernobyl and Fukushima. This is a direct result of the denial of fundamental human rights to the people affected.
Highly environmentally and socially destructive sources of energy continue to be economically feasible because the companies exploiting them are not forced to pay the environmental and social costs. It is therefore of key importance to develop institutional forms that force them to pay those costs, while defending social equity. The formation of natural resource trusts is one proposed solution to this issue.
Non-renewable sources of energy that can be obtained from relatively few sources (i.e., coal, natural gas, oil, and uranium) are all fairly easily monopolized by a small number of companies. Likewise, the distribution of electric power can become monopolized if most of it is produced from a few very large plants – and in the case of fossil fuels and nuclear plants, such plants typically achieve greater economies of scale. Large dams can also best be managed by a single entity, lending themselves to monopoly. Once such monopolies have been established, they use their political muscle to make sure the existing rules favor them rather than small competitors, especially those using renewable, eco-friendly sources of energy. The resulting barriers have delayed the rise of more sustainable energy use, which would imply abundance not only in terms of having plenty of energy, but also in allowing huge numbers of people or businesses to produce energy either for themselves or for exchange.
Transportation policy (with the support of major automobile and oil industries) meanwhile favored the car and urban sprawl in many countries, first in the United States and then in numerous other countries that followed its lead. Comparatively little effort was undertaken to make technologies more energy-efficient. This was based on a mindset that energy is a “free good” from nature that need not be paid, and that the destruction of the living conditions of people living close to mines is the “price of progress” (especially if others have to pay it). Long-term desolation of surface mines for coal was seen as a small price to pay for burning off the coal in a few years. Most present machines can be made much more energy-efficient, especially if one uses whole-systems design. For example, a house with good insulation requires less heating and cooling; if that is provided with a smaller, more energy-efficient furnace, total heating and cooling energy needed can be vastly reduced. Similarly, if entire cities are designed such that people can easily reach their destinations by foot, bicycle, or public transport, often more easily than by car, then total energy use is reduced far more than by simply making cars more efficient (and hoping that increased driving does not outweigh the energy savings).
Big industry and most governments for a long time saw no use for renewable energies except large-scale hydropower. Hence the development of relevant technologies was not funded, and patents were left unused (blocking their use for others). Only recently has this changed, partly due to pioneering work in a few countries (e.g., research on wind energy in Denmark).
The challenge we face now is to reduce our energy needs by installing more energy efficient technologies and retrofitting houses, and to increase our use of renewables. The problem is that we are still not paying the environmental costs of fossil fuel use, and therefore the cost incentives tend to block a transition that will ultimately make all our lives more comfortable, will reduce pollution, and limit global warming. Hence, both institutional and technological approaches are needed to get us out of our present impasse.
Approaches toward abundance
For detailed discussions of each energy form, see:
solar (photovoltaic, solar thermal, building design)
wind energy (used for wind power, sailing ships)
energy from water (rivers, tides, ocean currents)
energy from biological sources (wood and other fuels, organic waste)
human power (e.g., cycling, seesaws to power water pumps)
Approaches that address energy issues regardless of the source of energy
Energy efficiency – technologies
Regulations and incentives for socially and environmentally appropriate business activities
Carbon and other natural resource trusts
Urban planning and related approaches that reduce the need for cars
Wiki; Course on Sustainable Energy, taught by Mike Hannigan at University of Colorado at Boulder
Many more links on the Category: Energy page (click on the link at the bottom of the page)
A very incomplete list – more should be added!
Campbell, C. and Laherrere, J. (1998), “The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American 278:3, 60–65.
Deffeyes, K.S. (2001), Hubbert’s Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Georgescu-Roegen, N. (1975), “Energy and Economic Myths,” The Southern Economic Journal 41:3, 347–381.
Illich, I. (1974), Energy and Equity (New York: Harper & Row).
Karl, T.L. (1997), The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Klein, J. and Olson, M. (1996), Taken for a Ride (documentary film) (Hohokus, NJ: New Day Films).
Le Billon, P. (2005), “The Geography of ‘Resource Wars’,” in The Geography of War and Peace: From Death Camps to Diplomats, edited by C. Flint (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 217-41.
Scheer, H. (2002), The Solar Economy: Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Global Future (London: Earthscan).
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