Energy: The Master Resource
by Robert L. Bradley and Richard W. Fulmer
($19.95 paperback, Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 2004; ISBN: 0-7575-1169-4)
Energy: the Master Resource is a truly valuable introduction to the history, technology, economics, and public policy of energy. It should and could be taught as a science elective in every high school and college. The science and technology are easily understood and are supported by brilliantly colored graphics. The politics and economics are carefully explained.
There are reasons to appreciate our past production of energy and to be optimistic about our energy future. As this book documents, carbon-related technologies are doing well in a two-front war against resource depletion and pollution. Economists believe the fossil fuel resource base will be adequate for many decades and probably centuries. Technological improvements and capital turnover (that is, replacement of older vehicles, machines, and power plants with newer, more efficient equipment) promise to continue to make our air and water cleaner in the decades ahead even as energy consumption increases.
Far too much reporting on energy and environmental issues is simplistic, agenda-driven, and alarmist. Without historical context and without an appreciation for basic economic principles such as opportunity cost, cost/benefit analysis, and decision-making in the face of uncertainty, problems can be seen where none exist, and solutions can create real problems where none existed before. This book can help balance the debate in the classroom, the office, and the home.
Competing Power Sources
The first chapter of the book, on “basics,” succinctly explains the underlying physics of energy production. Work, power, quads, BTUs, and kinetic and potential energy are all clearly explained. Power production, whether steam, coal, or nuclear, is actually quite simple, and the authors make no effort to complicate it. Their writing style is so uncomplicated that you quickly forget you are reading a science text. A few samples of comments on nuclear energy, oil, wind power, and solar energy will illustrate my point.
- “In the United States,” the authors write, “the amount of electricity produced by nuclear plants has increased by 25 percent during the 1990s even though the number of nuclear plants fell by eight, from 112 to 104, during the same period. This was made possible by raising the average capacity utilization factor of the remaining plants to 89 percent from 69 percent. Put another way, the amount of time that the units were running versus their theoretical maximum rose by one-third.”
- “While 39 percent of America’s overall energy came from oil in 2002,” they note, “less than 3 percent of the country’s electricity was generated from oil-fired plants. Oil resources are less plentiful and generally more expensive than coal but oil has a lower environmental impact. It burns more completely than coal and leaves no ash to be hauled away. It also produces fewer emissions per unit of energy generated.”
- “Assuming that the wind blew all the time,” they write, “it would take twenty five hundred 400 kilowatt (kw) wind turbines to replace one traditional 1000kw power plant. Given that the wind does not blow all the time, however, and assuming a capacity factor of 33 percent, it would take 7500 wind turbines to replace a traditional power plant.”
- “Photovoltaic, or solar cells, convert sunlight directly into electricity,” the authors explain. “When photons strike certain semiconductor materials, such as silicon, they dislodge electrons. These free electrons collect on the specially treated front surface of the solar cell, creating a potential difference between it and the back surface. Wires attached to each of the cell’s faces conduct the current.”
The “Good Old Days” Are Now
The book deals objectively and eloquently with the physical and economic limitations of solar power, biomass, and hydrogen fuel cells while recounting the shortcomings of the “good old days” of horses and buggies.
“Animal power turned city streets into filthy breeding grounds for disease, reeking of manure and urine and swarming with flies,” the authors note. “San Francisco ordinances still include a law that bans the piling of horse manure more than six feet high at street corners. Another legacy of horse power is the custom that a gentleman walks to the outside when escorting a lady down a sidewalk. This was done to shield the lady’s dress from any muck that might be thrown up by passing carriages.”
They go on to say, “A big city had to clear 10,000 to 15,000 horse carcasses from the streets every year.”
A little-known fact the authors expose is that electric cars have been around since the late 1800s. They were later replaced by the internal combustion engine, and no efforts to reverse that situation have succeeded. On the other hand, the authors are very high on our new hybrid cars.
Bradley and Fulmer are just as strong explaining economics as energy. Those of us who struggled through Economics 101 will appreciate the following explanation: “The phrase, ‘the market,’ does not refer to some vast, impersonal, institution that controls individuals and corporations. It refers instead to the continuous exchange of goods, services, and ideas by millions of individuals–some acting on their own behalf and others on the behalf of companies and institutions. These countless actions make up the market. In a free market, people communicate, buy, sell, trade, and otherwise interact without third-party coercion (i.e. the use of force).”
Dispelling Doom and Gloom
The book’s discussion of the doomsayers’ certainty that we will one day run out of energy is a feast for the intellect. The authors destroy the absurd prediction of the king of the doomsday cult, Paul Ehrlich, with transparent common sense and wonderful quips from the late Julian Simon. The layman and student will read and scratch his or her head in wonderment over how he or she could ever have been taken in by the pessimistic views continuously echoed by the media.
“Energy depletionists concentrate on current sources of energy and their inevitable decline,” the authors explain. “As a result, they see a bleak future for the world. Expansionists, by contrast, are less interested in any particular resources than in the service that it provides. Their view of the future is brighter because they choose to focus not on limited resources but on the limitless human mind.”
Julian Simon once said, “The main fuel to speed our progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination. The ultimate resource is people–skilled, spirited, and hopeful people, who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.”
The authors continue, “Pessimism is a grim master; it carries with it the seeds of failure. New challenges should be met with excitement and confidence, confidence born not of naiveté, but of a history filled with obstacles faced and overcome. Our resources are limited only by our imaginations and by the freedom, knowledge, and drive needed to turn dreams into reality.”
California’s Energy Problems Explained
Bradley and Fulmer also explain with simplicity and precision the recent California energy crisis that vaulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to governor. In short, they point out, high resource prices serve as warnings of shortages and provide incentives for overcoming those shortages. Using price controls to solve the problem of rising prices is like trying to cure a child’s fever by adjusting the thermometer. Price controls quickly create shortages where none existed before.
Consider a commodity like apples. Suppose the government announced that from now on apples would cost only a penny. The demand for apples would skyrocket. Who could resist a bargain like that? On the other hand, at that price who could afford to grow and harvest apples? Forcing prices below their natural market levels encourages consumption and discourages production. The inevitable result is shortages.
It is truly amazing that this simple lesson in economics is not widely understood. Bradley and Fulmer make it crystal clear. They comment with equal clarity on free trade: “Open trade makes wars less likely because countries have little incentive to attack their trading partners. Conversely, tariffs and trade restrictions increase the chance of armed conflict. As nineteenth century French economist Frederic Bastiat once warned, ‘If goods don’t cross borders, armies will.'”
Puncturing Fears of Global Warming
Few books are perfect, however, and Energy: The Master Resource is no exception. This reviewer believes the authors waste too much of the final chapter describing the myriad ways people have devised to reduce atmospheric CO2, when in fact the issue simply does not matter.
A good illustration, and a unique contribution in the ongoing global warming discussion, is a graph, shown below, which objectively describes the pros and cons of anthropogenic (human-caused) CO2 increases.
On the other hand, the laughs provided by the following idea, documented by the authors, may make it all worthwhile:
“NASA has offered what is perhaps the most novel solution to global warming yet proposed–moving the Earth to a higher orbit, farther from the Sun. Simply locate a suitable asteroid, attach a rocket to it, fire the rocket at just the right time to alter its course, and sling it by the Earth so that its gravitational force drags our planet into a higher orbit.”
I did not make this up!
Actually, the scientists proposed this plan as a solution to the ultimate global warming problem: Our sun is gradually brightening, and in about a billion years it will be hot enough to kill off all life on Earth if the planet stays in its current orbit.
On balance, I suppose the authors wanted to be extremely objective so as not to turn off any readers with preconceived biases. They will surely succeed if they get their readers to the end of the chapter, where they brilliantly summarize the many vested interests that keep the global warming debate alive.
“If it turns out that global warming is not a problem,” the authors write, “then many researchers will lose their government funding. Professional environmentalists need hot issues to garner contributions and keep themselves relevant. Journalists welcome global warming as a front-page issue on slow news days. They like crisis reporting and the bold headlines that go with it; negative stories sell more newspapers than do positive ones. People in the government tend to like crises both real and imagined. The bigger the problem, the more people look to government institutions for answers.”
That is not to say that everyone with a stake in the issues consciously tries to hide the truth or skew the data. But people often emphasize facts that support their own positions and either ignore or minimize information to the contrary.
Thorough Summary of Progress
Finally, Bradley and Fulmer’s book would be worth its price were it only for the 19-page energy timeline in the appendix. It contains 211 significant dates in history, stretching from 500,000 BC, when Peking Man first used fire for warmth and food preparation, to 1995, when laser diodes broke the one-watt power barrier. In between are descriptions of the use of sails by Egyptians in 3500 BC, coal by the Chinese in 1000 BC, and the water wheel in 250 AD.
This is a marvelous book. Buy it. Read it. Give it away.
Jay Lehr ([email protected]) is science director for The Heartland Institute.