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Classical Energy Thinking: Right on Renewables (intermittency), Not-so-Right on Fossil Fuels (coming exhaustion)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 30, 2009

“The winds, turning more mills than ever before, pump water, grind grain, churn, and do a score of little tasks for a surviving domestic industry; but they list not to blow with enough regularity or violence to keep wheels spinning and mills going.”

- Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, The Case of Bituminous Coal (New York: Institute of Economics/Macmillan, 1926), p. 3.

William Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question (1865), the book that founded mineral economics, got it right on the limits of renewables for the machine age and the godsend of coal as a superabundant utilitarian energy source.

Previous posts at MasterResource have summarized Jevons’s 19th century wisdom on the primacy of coal (carbon-based energy); the limits of windpower; the limits of hydropower, biomass, and geothermal; and the paradox of energy efficiency.

Obama energy policy–and all of his smartest-guys-in-the-room energy advisors–would benefit from the insights contained in this 144-year-old book.

But Jevons was too pessimistic on the future of coal and petroleum, as detailed in chapter 7 of my book Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. And Jevons scarcely knew about the other foundational fuel of the carbon-based energy age: natural gas.

The Case of Bituminous Coal (Hamilton and Wright)

The 1926 book published by the Institute of Economics by Macmillan, The Case of Bituminous Coal, by Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, offers an interesting update of the Jevons worldview of energy. Like Jevons, they got it right on the limitations of renewables and primacy of fossil fuels, but they got it wrong on a coming depletion of oil and gas in particular.

For the record, here is an excerpt from pages 2–5 of the book:

The strategic place of bituminous coal in the industrial order requires no explanation. So obvious is it that Adam Smith’s remark, “coals are a less agreeable form of fuel than wood” seems naïve, and the act of a fourteenth century parliament in outlawing “the burning of coal” as a “public nuisance” almost unthinkable. Very briefly, our whole productive system is built about the machine-process; the machine-process uses mechanical energy; and the great source of mechanical energy is coal.

This strategic position belongs, not to coal, but to bituminous coal. There are many coals, ranging in degree of hardness from anthracite, though bituminous and lignite, to peat. These have ofttimes been subdivided into as many classes as the time and patience of the classifier would allow. But neither a common fossil origin nor the kindred arts of mining used to draw these coals from the ground make their economic problems alike. Anthracite, a rapidly wasting resource, is used largely for domestic fuel; its problem concerns the coal bin and the coal bill of the ordinary householder. Lignite and peat, low in energy value, are not extensively used. Save where distance makes bituminous expensive, they are a source of future rather than of present power. Between them lies bituminous, a soft coal of great variety, abundant for all current uses, and the great source of industrial energy. If a legal ban were placed against the use of anthracite, the industrial system would be little affected by it. If all our lignite and peat were suddenly removed from out of the ground, our productive processes would hardly be touched. But if the mining of bituminous were arrested, even for a few weeks, our vast and intricate economic system would be thrown into complete disorder.

The industrial primacy of bituminous coal is today unchallenged. As power, the labor of human beings is no longer of any current account. The ox as a beast of burden stalks only the dim ways of history and the horse has been dislodged from the treadmill to amble along unfrequented country roads. It is of the irony of time that mules are today employed in the mining of a product which made their own energy obsolete. The winds, turning more mills than ever before, pump water, grind grain, churn, and do a score of little tasks for a surviving domestic industry; but they list not to blow with enough regularity or violence to keep wheels spinning and mills going. Natural gas seems certain presently to lose its very frail position in the industrial system. Oil alone, whose sole use was once thought to be a cure for mangy camels, is able to offer limited competition. In its crude state it is used to propel locomotives and steamships; and, in the more refined form of gasoline, it keeps motor vehicles moving. But, even with the Diesel engine and economy in use, oil seems unlikely to make serious inroads upon coal; for oil, like natural gas, is a rapidly wasting asset.

There seems to be no current substitute capable of supplying energy to large enterprises. The hydroelectric industry will probably advance, but its expansion is hedged about with natural barriers. If all the water-power in the country were harnessed, and if it were by some quite wasteless process turned into industrial energy, it would not suffice to keep current industry going. To a limited extent the fall of water can replace coal; but the inaccessibility of water power, the expense in equipment necessary to its utilization, and the waste incident to its conversion and transmission give an immediate chance for a very partial substitution. Even the promise of “super-power,” which just now seems to lurk ominously in the offing, is nothing more than to make a ton of bituminous go farther. If, with the years and the expansion of industry, our demand for power should increase, our current knowledge can point to no other source than coal.

Nor does a developing technology give any future assurance of a rival source of industrial energy. The waves, the tides, the rays of the sun, the atom may well hold stores of energy that dwarf even our reserves in bituminous coal. But the scientific formulas which will unlock these reservoirs and turn them to account have not yet been discovered. Scientists talk glibly about the production in vast quantities of an alcohol from a tropical vegetable and promise a much wider use of the internal combustion engine. But it is far more likely that oil will be replaced by benzol, which is a product of bituminous coal. In fact in Europe benzol is even now extensively used to propel motor vehicles. In the calculable future, therefore, the problem of power is likely to remain the problem of bituminous coal.

Probably the most important technological factor that can be added to the above early energy thinking is the limits to electrical storage. Oh how Thomas Edison and others have tried, but oh how batteries to firm up intermittent energy is inefficient and costly.

The fossil-fuel era is still young.

One Comment for “Classical Energy Thinking: Right on Renewables (intermittency), Not-so-Right on Fossil Fuels (coming exhaustion)”

  1. New (Politically Correct) Energy Conversations | Institute for Energy Research  

    […] and solar energy is expensive, unreliable, and quantity-constrained. This is the same verdict as rendered by William Stanley Jevons in his 1865 classic, The Coal Question. Renewable energy is just not ready for prime time—and not […]


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