A Free-Market Energy Blog

Energy Strategy: Begin with Density

By Jerry Graf -- August 21, 2013

“In this century the bulk of humanity will live in large densely populated cities. If the citizens of of these cities are to attain a high quality of life they will require large centralised energy generation. This is not a matter of ideological preference, but of engineering reality.”

– Robert Wilson, The Future of Energy: Why Power Density Matters, Energy Collective, August 8, 2013.

“There is no doubt that we in the United States need to alter our energy strategy. The question is how we will change it. A rational energy strategy must be determined by scientific evaluation of fact and logical analysis of performance and economics–not by emotion, political considerations, and ‘feel good’ methodologies.”

– Jerry Graf (below)

Other than the damage to the economy from the waste itself, the real problem with mandating and subsidizing non-viable energy technology projects is that this distracts us and diverts resources from other efforts to improve our energy production strategy.

Unfortunately, some of the arguments used to justify the mandates and subsidies are more political and emotional than logical.

An excellent article entitled “No time to abandon energy densityby Professor Colin McInnes FREng at Ingenia Online indicates the following:

When James Watt’s separate steam condenser began to displace Thomas Newcomen’s early atmospheric engine, it did not require government targets or financial incentives to encourage the take-up of the technology. Watt’s idea succeeded simply because it took less than half as much coal to deliver the same quantity of mechanical work. Watt’s innovation was part of a long-term trend in energy production; it was part of a continuous move towards using fuels of greater energy density and so lower carbon intensity….

Many forms of green energy are spatially diffuse and intermittent, making them inefficient and inherently expensive. Therein lies the need for feed-in tariffs and other support mechanisms. Green energy is set to grow, not because it is more productive, like Watt’s separate steam condenser, but because government mandates it and provides generous incentives. An energy transition that leads to more expensive, less efficient energy production is more a regression than a revolution…

The era of cheap energy is over only if we choose so. If we use technical innovation to accelerate, rather than supplant, moves towards greater energy density, we can deliver energy that is both cheaper and more abundant. And, as a useful side effect, we will help de-carbonise our economy in the process.

There is no doubt that we in the United States need to alter our energy strategy. But will it be changed for the better? A rational energy strategy must be determined by scientific evaluation of fact and logical analysis of performance and economics–not by emotion, political considerations, and “feel good” methodologies.


Jerry Graf holds a BS and MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Akron, where he currently is chairman (and a founder member) of the Mechanical Engineering Advisory Council. With 30 years experience in energy engineering, Graf’s current interest is the technical aspects of wind power.

Appendix: Other Posts on Energy Density

Power Density Separates the Wheat from the Chaff (Kent Hawkins)

Creative Energy Destruction: Renewables Lost Long Ago (Robert Bradley)

Energy Density is Key (Richard Fulmer)

Energy Density: Robert Bryce’s Powerful Energy Message

Power Density Primer: Understanding the Spatial Dimension of the Unfolding Transition to Renewable Electricity Generation (Vaclav Smil)

Part I – Definitions

Part II – Coal-and Wood-Fired Electricity Generation

Part III – Natural Gas-Fired Electricity

Part IV – New Renewables Electricity Generation

Part V – Comparing the Power Densities of Electricity Generation


  1. intrepid_wanders  

    Giving society cheap, abundant energy . . . would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.
    —Paul Ehrlich (1978)

    Oddly enough, free (next to free) abundant energy will ruin capitalism as we know it. Think about it. Anyone with Open Source experience knows it. We would have to re-think our economic models across the board. Should we. Of course. We are on a path of being a space faring planet, and it is going to require energy densities to continue to improve to continue this vision. Yes, energy can be scary, but you must always push past your fears, especially if there are huge societal gains.

    What I can see here, is the very thing that Paul wants, is the thing that Paul denies. His socialistic mannerisms should support abundant cheap energy, but his pettiness wants the “academic elite” to be the ruling caste. As a layman anthropology scholar, I find this quite amusing, especially since Paul is butterfly scholar.


  2. Ray  

    Dr. Hayden has done a lot of work on the importance of energy density.


  3. Kenneth Haapala  

    Pithy statement, but I would suggest the first criteria for modern civilization is dispatchable or not?


  4. Dave  

    Alternate energy systems may only be side projects in the long-term, but surely there is benefit from developing projects of all varieties and gaining new experience and competencies.


  5. Jerry Graf  

    Thanks to all for reading and commenting.

    I agree that developing a diverse variety of REASONABLE projects would have benefit. A reasonable project would have a sound foundation in scientific analysis, showing a reasonable expectation of success. In my view, the proper analysis and objective scientific evaluation of wind energy projects (and for that matter solar energy projects) has not been performed, and we cannot justify the headlong rush to spend huge amounts of public money on these technologies as they currently exist.


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