Daniel Yergin: Current Energy Fears Are Old

by David Bier on November 14, 2011

Below is an interesting excerpt from Daniel Yergin’s new book The Quest: Energy, Security, and the remaking the modern worldan epic 700-page journey through worldwide energy history. The passage describes how even the preeminent scientists from ages past have fallen for phony fears about energy.

The fear of running out of energy has troubled people for a long time. One of the nineteenth century’s greatest scientists, William Thomson–better known as Lord Kelvin–warned in 1881, in his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Edinburgh, that Britain’s base was precarious and that disaster was impending. His fear was not about oil, but about coal, which had generated the “Age of Steam,” fueled Britain’s industrial preeminence, and made the words of “Rule, Britannia!” a reality in world power. Kelvin somberly warned that Britain’s days of greatness might be numbered because “the subterranean coal-stores of the world” were “becoming exhausted surely, and not slowly” and the day was drawing close when “so little of it is left.” The only hope he could offer was “that windmills or wind-motors in some form will again be in the ascendant.”

Three quarters of a century after Kelvin’s address, the end of the “Fossil Fuel Age” was predicted by another formidable figure, Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “father of the nuclear navy” and, as much as any single person, the father of the nuclear power industry, and described once as “the greatest engineer of all time” by President Jimmy Carter.

“Today, coal, oil and natural gas supply 93 percent of the world’s energy,” Rickover declared in 1957. That was, he said, a “startling reversal” from just a century earlier, in 1850, when “fossil fuels supplied 5 percent of the world’s energy, and men and animals 94 percent.” This harnessing of energy was what made possible a standard of living far higher than that of the mid-nineteenth century. But Rickover’s central point was that fossil fuels would run out sometime after 2000–and most likely before 2050.

“Can we feel certain that when economically recoverable fossil fuels are gone science will have learned how to maintain a high standard of living on renewable energy sources?” the admiral asked. He was doubtful. He did not think that renewables–wind, sunlight, biomass–could ever get much above 15 percent of total energy. Nuclear power, though still experimental, might well replace coal in power plants. But, said Rickover, atomic-powered cars just were not in the cards. “It will be wise to face up to the possibility of the ultimate disappearance of automobiles,” he said. He put all of this in a strategic context: “High-energy consumption has always been a prerequisite of political power,” and he feared the perils that would come were that to change.

The resource endowment of the Earth has turned out to be nowhere near as bleak as Rickover thought. Oil production today is five times greater than it was in 1957. Moreover, renewables have established a much more secure foundation than Rickover imagined. And we still live in what Rickover called the Fossil Fuel Age. Today, oil, coal, and natural gas provide over 80 percent of the world’s energy.

(From the Introduction, pages 3-4.)

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