Huber & Mills: The Virtue of Waste

by David Bier on January 3, 2012

in Blog

In 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 massive energy “losses” during energy production aren’t bad, as outside critics of the U.S. energy economy want to assert. They are actually the most necessary and beneficial part of America’s energy use—they refine energy sources into usable energy.

The Bottomless Well was published in 2005

To put it as bluntly as it can be put, the “waste” of energy is virtue, not a vice. It is only by throwing most of the energy away that we can put what’s left to productive use. The cold side of the engine—where we discard most of the energy—is as essential as the hot, where we suck it in. More essential, in fact. It is by throwing energy overboard that we maintain and increase the order of our existence.

The electricity at the plug arrives from the enormous generator in some utility’s central power plant. What spins the generator’s shaft is a steam turbine. The steam comes from a boiler, which is heated by furnace, which most probably burns coal. In the very best power plants, half of the raw heat available in the coal is consumed inside the plant itself in converting the other half of the heat into electricity. Less efficient power plants—smaller ones used as stand-by generators, for example—consume two-thirds of their heat to refine the other one-third into electricity. The whole business, in short, reeks of a Ponzi scheme, with each successive tier of the pyramid feeding voraciously off the one beneath—and with new tiers constantly being added at the top. Small wonder that so much of our energy economy is often characterized as wasteful. Casual observers are easily convinced that there must be a better way.

The energy Ponzi scheme is invariably framed—and lamented—as a symptom of grotesque waste. In the standard graphical presentation, the noble pyramid is portrayed, instead, as a squid-like creature, expelling waste through every tentacle. Updated versions of the energy squid are now routinely wheeled out to demonstrate how most of the energy we use goes to “waste” or (more colorfully) disappears down a “rat hole.”

But something far bigger than a wasteful rat hole is at work when you are looking at the 95 percent or more of total demand. That much demand can’t all be blamed on bad engineering. If the main use of energy is to condition energy itself, then “energy” isn’t the right metric at all, and the “energy economy” must in fact center on something quite different. Engines and generators are obviously doing something for us that isn’t captured by any of the conventional metrics of energy and power.

In fact, the huge pyramid (or squid) of consumption, with its withering “losses” at every turn, doesn’t reflect bad engineering; it reflects, in all its real world complexity, one of the most fundamental laws of physics, the second law of thermodynamics. The purification of energy depends on very complex structures that turn energy inward on itself, so that two units of low-grade energy funneled into the machine emerge as one unit of high-grade energy and one unit of useless heat. Energy doesn’t just lounge about waiting for the chance to propel moms and kids to soccer fields—getting things to that point is an uphill battle. The remarkable thing isn’t that our power-conversion technologies are inefficient but that they work at all.

What they are doing is purifying power. Most of our demand for energy derives from energy’s capacity to refine energy, and from power’s capacity to purify power. Our main use of energy—by far the most important in the “energy” racket—is to purify energy itself. It is only by grappling with that strange fact that we come to understand why we use so much energy, and why we will always demand still more.

(excerpted from pages 44-48)

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