Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The de-commodification of energy?

Submitted Anton I. Botha

If Cope, or even Obama, is serious about radical change (as promised) and thereby improving the lives of all people, they should not have to look beyond the reform of our current energy supply paradigm. One could go so far as to ask “why don’t both of them offer the people free energy?” This commitment could even go one further: why don’t they promise free energy to the people at zero cost to the environment?

Is this some “socialist-hippy-idealistic-utopian-dream” or is it a “medium-term-technologically-and-economically-viable-reality”? At first glance, even I have to admit that this calls for a commitment that seems impossible. However, if one carefully interrogates how we interact with energy, think about it, and use it, this dream seems more and more possible.

What is energy?

Energy is a cosmic force that can take many forms, so by posing such a question one could expect a variety of answers. Perhaps a more pertinent question would be, who or what do we associate with energy? Ask anyone that question and the names ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Beyond Petroleum, and Chevron, to name a few, would be mentioned. These are of course some of the world’s largest ‘energy’ companies (and incidentally also some of the world’s largest companies). We associate energy with commodities, such as coal, oil, and gas and think of energy as the stuff that we pour into our petrol tanks or the stuff that comes out of our wall plugs. We therefore believe that energy is a commodity that can be bought and sold.

It is only when one sits back and takes a look at the bigger energy picture that one realises we have systematically commodified the most abundant resource in the universe. The universe, as far as we know, consists of only two things: matter and energy. According to Einstein’s formula there is a relationship between the two; matter can be converted into energy and energy, although with greater difficulty, can be converted into matter. Furthermore, if quantum physicists are to be believed the distinction between the two becomes pretty hazy at a sub-atomic level, so in effect, energy is literally everywhere.

As far as I understand it, we interact with this cosmic force on two levels. On a primary level, our organic bodies require energy for our continued biological existence (i.e. not dying, and going about our daily business). This energy is the result of a chemical reaction between oxygen and glucose which our bodies craftily extract and transform through breathing and eating. The food that we consume and the air that we breathe directly or indirectly originate from plants and animals. This energy in turn directly or indirectly derives from the sun. So, in effect human beings are solar powered, albeit in a roundabout way.

On a secondary or “technical” level we use energy to propel our trains, planes, and automobiles, to cook our food, to heat and cool our dwellings, power our electronics, and to mould matter into “things”. Of course, as with all complex systems, these two levels continually interweave; we use the energy in our bodies to create systems that in turn harness energy for our continued existence and convenience.

At the present moment it is estimated that we, on planet earth, use 0.5 Zetta Joules (1×1021) of energy per year for the secondary purposes described above. Of these 0.5 trillion trillion Joules, 37% goes towards industry, 20% for transportation, 11% for residential use, 5% for commercial use, and a whopping 27% is lost in transmission. To meet the world’s demand for energy we convert various types of fuel resources into mostly kinetic, electric and thermal energy. In terms of total energy production 37% is from oil, 25% coal, 23% gas, 6% nuclear and only 8% is harnessed from renewable sources, such as solar, biomass, wind, etc. Sadly, as reflected by these figures, 86% of this demand is still met by fossil fuels.

Let’s think about fossil fuels for a second. Fossil fuels are the time-rendered effect of organic matter trapped in the earth; so in effect your car runs on prehistoric plants and animals. These plants and animals would have derived that energy, directly and indirectly, from the sun millions of years ago. Therefore your car is also really solar powered (albeit in a seriously time-delayed and inefficient way, considering that one litre of petrol is the net result of a low heat pressure cooking process of 23.5 tons of ancient organic matter). So really, when you say your car gets 10 litres to 100km, you mean 235 tons of organic materials per 100km. That is a pretty shitty fuel economy if you ask me. It is estimated that the total amount of fossil fuels used in 1997 equaled 422 years of all plant matter that grew on the entire surface and in all the oceans of the ancient earth. To add insult to inefficiency-injury, the fossil fuels we so happily burn annually create 23.1 billion tons (yes, billion) of carbon dioxide, produce tons of sulphuric, carbonic, and nitric acids (which results in acid rain) and throw out 12 000 tons of radioactive thorium as well as 5,000 tons of uranium from coal alone.

Besides being bad for the environment and therefore us, fossil fuels have other drawbacks. They are finite. Although disagreement exists about the exact figures, is now generally agreed upon that we have reached the halfway mark with oil. Coal, gas, and uranium aren’t doing much better; current figures show that there is roughly 18.4 Zetta Joules or 43 years worth of oil left, 15.7 Zetta Joules or 167 years of gas remaining, and 290 Zetta Joules or 155 years of coal left. Also the pollution created by utilising these last remaining reserves would of course be enough to destroy this planet, so burning every last lump of coal, gallon of oil, and cubic feet of gas really is not an option.

Yet collectively, we spend an unearthly amount of money, and thus resources, on fossil fuels every year. ExxonMobil Corporation alone spent 318.3-billion USD in 2007 on operational expenses. Quite a bit if compared to South Africa’s entire 2007 GNP of 257- billion USD. Those operating expenses equal serious resources (i.e. capital equipment, technology, and technical brain power) which went toward unearthing fossil fuels.

If one considers the globe’s annual GNP of roughly 54-trillion USD, compared to the USA’s GNP of 13.8-trillion USD, which is about 25% of the total, and one considers that the USA spends 1.1-trillion USD on energy annually (about 8% of their GNP), then one can extrapolate from these figures that the world spends about 4.4-trillion USD on energy annually. Of this amount 86% gets pumped into fossil fuels, and a quick calculation reveals that we spend (waste) roughly about 3.8-trillion USD on a finite polluting fuel sources worldwide every year. That’s enough money to bail out the US banking sector five and half times; now think of how much, by way of resources that money can buy: brain power, equipment, technology, and research.

So what are the alternatives?

Alternative energy sources are fairly well known to the public. Most people are aware of solar, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal, biomass, and hydro energy. What we seem to be less familiar with is the amount of energy that is available from these sources. Consider solar energy for instance. Every year 2 850 Zetta Joules of solar energy reaches earth, and to meet our current annual global energy demand of 0.5 Zetta Joules, we need only harness 0.02% of it. That would be the equivalent of harnessing solar energy over the surface area of New Zealand or the United Kingdom. Now think of all those wide-open expanses in the Goby, Sahara, Namib, Great Basin, Chihuahua, and Atacama deserts. We definitely have the unused space. Wind, wave, biomass and hydro energy are simply intermediaries of solar energy, which can be effectively harnessed. In addition to this unbelievable abundance of energy originating from “Ra” we also have geothermal energy.

Geothermal energy is simply the energy stored in the core of the earth; for every one kilometre that you drill down into the earth the temperature increases by 15 degrees Celsius. According to an MIT study there are about 13 000 Zetta Joules available, with 2 000 Zetta Joules easily extractable with improved technology; that’s 4 000 times what we currently require. Geothermal energy is easily harnessed too; Iceland and the Philippines simply pop steam turbines on top of geysers to generate electricity, which respectively accounts for 19.1% and 17.5% for their total electricity production. Access to this type of energy is of course not limited to areas where low surface geothermal activity is prevalent. With hot dry rock geothermal technology holes are drilled into rock bed to access geothermal heat. Water can be introduced into the hot dry rock, which then turns into steam and powers turbine generators. At a depth of 10 kilometres the temperature is already 150 degrees Celsius. Of course this is a deep hole, but not impossibly deep when one considers that ExxonMobil proudly announced an 11 kilometre hole at their Chayvo field in Sakhalin.

The current complaint about renewable energy sources is that the available technologies are expensive and not well developed. Solar panels are not yet net energy-efficient and are expensive to manufacture. Great strides are being made in this field and exciting breakthroughs by Marc Baldo at MIT with his solar concentrators and CaliSolar with their “dirty” and thus cheaper silicon bring us closer to making this a viable solution. Similarly, great advances are being made in geothermal energy technologies, with the US Department of Energy announcing that it has committed 90-million USD to hot dry rock research over the next three years (2008-2011); still a comparatively small figure if placed in the context of the total fossil fuel till slip, which is about 42 222 times larger.

The issue of secondary energy conversion is really an issue about resources allocation. To clarify what I mean by this consider the current and alternative energy equations. In order to turn already existing resources into usable energy, we need technology to turn these into kinetic, electric and thermal energy. (We don’t really buy petrol, we buy moving wheels.)

Resources + Technology = Useable Energy

These resources are mostly oil, gas, as well as coal, and for the most part we use combustion engines and coal power stations to convert (what ironically used to be solar energy) into useable energy. The resource side of this equation is costing us 3.8-trillion USD a year, not to mention all the money that goes into the technology to harness the energy in these resources. (Just think of the cost of cars, planes, trucks, power stations, etc.)

Now let’s consider the alternative energy equation.

Renewable Resources + Technology = Useable Energy

In the alternative equation, solar, geothermal and celestial (tidal) are the resources (and guess what? … they cost nothing). The second component consists of the technologies used to convert these resources into useable kinetic, electric and thermal energy; like photovoltaic, geothermal steam turbines, tidal electric generators and electric vehicles. These technologies do cost money. However, now we have 3.8-trillion USD worth of resources to play with per year as the resource side of the alternative equation weighs nothing. The technology side of the equation. although expensive at first. will also gradually decrease as infrastructure is put into place and paid for. So what you have is the effective de-commodification of the resources side of the energy equation.

So, the complaint that alternative energy is too expensive really does not hold when one considers that we happily spend an unearthly amount of resources on fossil fuels, yet we are unwilling to divert these resources towards alternative energy research and infrastructure. I am convinced that if we only used the resources (money) spent on fossil fuels in one year to sort out alternative energy it would have been done already. Or imagine if the South African government took the 4.8-billion USD they spent on the arms deal and used that to get the alternative equation energy going. Or the USA took the 500-billion USD they spend annually on defence and invested that in alternative energy. We would most likely have had free, clean energy already.

Imagine a world where energy is free … We no longer pay for energy to move us and things from A to B. No longer are food prices held captive by the rollercoaster ride that is the oil price. We no longer pay to power our homes, businesses, hospitals and schools. Imagine the energy cost component removed from all trade. From the facts and figures that I have presented here it seems that this ideal is not quite as impossible as one might think. Free secondary energy seems possible on both an economic and technical level; all that is missing is political will. Let’s just hope that the new generation of world leaders can think of energy in terms beyond its current ridiculous commodity status and think of it as it rightly is: everywhere and for all to harness.

All facts and figures mentioned in this piece were obtained from secondary internet sources. As far as possible I made use of reputable sites such as the CIA fact book and the UN’s website. Where Wikis were consulted I made sure to read the discussion pages to determine whether facts and figures were in dispute. If any reader is aware of any incorrect facts or figure or know of better sources of information on the energy debate, please let me know by leaving a comment.

Anton I Botha is currently reading towards his M.Com at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.