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CONTEST - dbates, The Worlds Energy Supply. Past, Present, and Future

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posted on Apr, 24 2004 @ 10:59 AM
Webster’s English Dictionary states that energy is “the power for doing work.” This definition clearly states the two main features of having energy. The first thing that can be gained with energy is power, specifically power over others. An individual or society with more energy will usually be dominant over the members with less energy. How does one get this power? It comes from the work that is performed by energy. This work produces food for consumption, and brings water to those that have none. This work also produces tanks, bullets, and boats to secure more energy. In short, energy is used in everything we do. The amount of available energy, and how it is used has always been a major factor for all of mankind. How is this energy used, where does it all come from, and how much is left? These are questions that will determine the future of mankind?

A Brief History of Energy.

In the beginning, the sun was the only source of energy. People would gather food and hunt during the day, and when the sun went down at night, they would search for shelter from the cold. Mankind’s life was set by the rising and setting of the sun. If it rained and the sun was hid, they looked for shelter from the rain and lightning. Eventually someone noticed that the fires that were sometimes started by the lightning, brought comfort and warmth. Fire is one of the most important discoveries of all times. With fire, people could cook their food, and warm themselves on cold nights. This made people stronger and healthier. People also began to stay up later and talk, and discuss ideas. Now that they had warmth and light at night they were not dependant on the cycle of the sun for every thing in their lives.

Fire is essentially converting energy into heat by releasing stored energy. Wood was the main source of this energy for thousands of years. The use of wood for fuel grew and grew, especially after Europeans discovered uses for iron and steel. As more and more wood was used in the steel making furnaces, Europe began to experience rapid deforestation, especially from the 15th to the 18th century. Even before this time Plato wrote about the effects of the loss of trees in Greece.[Fry 2003] He commented, “the rich, soft soil has all run away leaving nothing of the land but skin and bone.” Older manuscripts such as the Bible speak of huge trees being cut down in Lebanon and floated down to Israel for Solomon to build the Temple. Some estimate that there were at one time over a million of these large trees growing in Lebanon [ M'Cheyne 1997] but there are now only 7.

It was evident that the use of wood as fuel could not continue at its current rate. By 1558 England’s Parliament began passing laws that restricted the use of timber as fuel. England’s war with France in the 1620’s began to expose signs of a severe timber shortage.[Oostheok,2000] In order to obtain enough lumber to build its fleets of ships, England had to import wood from Scandinavia, and later from the colonies in America. Spain felled huge sections of forest to build the famous Spanish Armada, and once its fleet was lost, there wasn’t enough lumber in Spain to rebuild it.


By the middle of the 18th century, much of Europe was experiencing an energy crisis due to lack of timber. As a result, coal became the major source of fuel. Coal was a plentiful source of energy, and England led the change into this new era that we call the Industrial Revolution. Once Abraham Darby perfected the proper method of burning coal in furnaces, large quantities of iron could be produced. Before Darby’s attempts coal wasn’t use because of the sulfur impurities that burning coal left in the metal. When most people think of the Industrial Revolution, they think of the vast uses of iron that began appearing. What they fail to realize, is that it was the use of coal that allowed the iron to be made. Vast amounts of energy are needed to convert raw materials into iron and steel, and coal was the solution.

Coal is a very abundant source of energy. At the current rate of use, coal will last another 200 years. [Bates 2004] Coal represents about 78% of the world’s available fossil fuels, [Moyers 2002] and can be found in many countries around the world. China and the United States together share 50% of the world’s coal, but for now there is enough dispersed in different locations to make it a plentiful source of energy.

Coal is used in many industrial applications, especially in areas such as the steel industry. Another one of the main uses of coal is in the generation of electricity. 38% of the world’s electricity is generated by coal [Moyers 2002]. Even though coal is a very abundant energy supply there are concerns about its role in pollution. Pollutants released by burning coal include sulfur, carbon dioxide, and mercury. Carbon Dioxide is thought to be one of the main contributors to global warming. About 32 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions are from coal burning plants. Still advances in making coal burn cleaner such as gasification are making coal one of the cleanest forms of power production. The United States currently has plans for 94 new coal-fired plants in 36 states [Clayton 2004] even as emission standards are getting tougher for new plants.

Other Fossil Fuels

Oil has been used as a source of energy for thousands of years. Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians used crude oil that seeped out of the ground along the Euphrates river [energyquest] for lighting and medicine. The Dead Sea in Israel was once called Lake Asphaltites, and large amounts of gooey petroleum used to wash up on the shores. This is where we get the name asphalt that we use today. Still, oil played a minor role in human life until the late 1800’s. On August 27, 1859, Edwin L. Drake started the modern petroleum industry by drilling a well at a local oil seep near Titusville, Pennsylvania. He began pumping the liquid oil out of the ground into barrels. It was then shipped and sold. We still use the same basic methods for recovering oil today.

What do we use this oil for? Almost all plastic, and the fertilizers that we use to help our crops grow come from petroleum. Oil is the main source of fuel for transportation vehicles, and the roads that we drive our cars on come from oil. Modern life as we know it wouldn’t exist without oil. No other source of energy is so compact, cheap, and readily available. To really answer the question of the impact of oil you could start by looking at everything you own or eat that you didn’t grow or make in your own backyard. Fertilizers are needed to grow larger crops. Diesel is needed to power the tractors that plant and harvest. And finally, the food has to be shipped to its destination. Think of the difficulty of having coffee brought in from Colombia without oil powered transportation. Looking at the world’s population growth chart reveals when oil was discovered in its modern usage.[atmos 1996]

The United States was once the worlds leading producer and exporter of oil. It was this oil that boosted the United States to victory in WWI and WWII. Oil powered the tanks, airplanes, and navy. Shortly after WWI Britain and France defeated Turkish domination and divided up the area we now call the Middle East. Most of the divisions were agreed upon, except for the area of Mosul (Iraq)[. The cause of this contention was that Iraq was known to have large undeveloped areas of oil deposits.

You know the end result of this story. The U.S. now occupies and controls the entire country, and the entire Middle East is in conflict of some sort. This is what some economist call the “natural resource curse”. Since these countries have vast riches in one area, little is done to encourage development of other areas of income. The result is everyone wanting to control the same resource, which ends up leading to wars. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941 were partly due to dependence on oil [Bates 2004]. The most recent struggle in Iraq is not the first oil war, and before oil, people fought over coal and timber rights. To make matters worse, oil is unevenly distributed around the world. This is because the geological conditions that were needed for oil formations are special conditions. As was mentioned before, the countries that have these resources are usually corrupt.

How long can the world continue to count on oil as a source of energy? Some estimates put the end of the oil period in the middle of this century. Dr. M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist in the middle of the 1900’s predicted that the United States’ oil production would peak in the 1970’s, and the world’s oil production would peak around 2005. Although he was correct in his assessment of the U.S. supply, the world’s total amount of oil left is a more complex matter. Mainly, the rest of the world has not been studied and mapped for oil as well as the United States. Still there are signs that point to a looming problem ahead. This year Shell oil has cut their total estimated reserve estimates by almost 25 percent, and the amount of oil reserves in the rest of the world is questionable. Asian countries such as China continue to grow and their demand for oil increases every year. Even if the supply of oil never decreases, the growth of demand is currently outpacing the supply growth. The world’s oil supply has been relatively flat since 2000.[Francis 2004]

Alternative and Future Energy Sources.

Nuclear power appears to be somewhat renewable, but there are many risks involved in using this kind of power. Waste disposal, and safety are the chief concerns. On April 25th, 1986, a nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl blew off its top. After numerous safety concerns were overlooked, the reactor had an uncontrolled chain reaction that melted the steel and concrete lid. Deadly doses of radiation were released into the atmosphere in a 20-mile area. Much of the area is still uninhabitable today. The long-term effect of this accident is still unknown. The only thing we do know is that we can’t use this type of energy if it isn’t safe or handled properly.

There has been a lot of talk lately about having hydrogen cars, and using hydrogen fuel. This is not a solution in that hydrogen is an energy carrier, and not an energy source. This is the same reason that you don’t see electricity listed above as an energy source. Using hydrogen as fuel is in fact a net loss of energy. More energy is required to produce and store the hydrogen than is gained from it’s use. [Bates 2004]

What does the future hold for the world’s energy demand? We don’t necessarily have to run out of oil for there to be a problem. If you look at previous energy models, such as the wood energy period, you will see that difference in supply and demand is all that matters. The world did not run out of trees, but as demand increased and supply lagged the problems became substantial. After we run out of petroleum, we can increase our dependence on coal, but eventually the coal will be gone too. The Earth has a finite amount of energy available. What we really need is a renewable source of energy.

The only truly renewable sources of energy are solar, wind, and water. Truly all energy on this planet comes from our sun. Energy from the sun is absorbed by plants and converted to useful form for all other forms of life. The energy from the sun heats the ocean and land, and produces the water cycle and wind currents. Harnessing the energy from the sun is currently cost prohibitive. Solar energy panels are expensive, and only gather energy during daylight hours. Wind generators are slightly more dependable, but these too rely on weather conditions. Hydroelectric power is actually the only cost-effective, renewable source of energy that we currently have. More research needs to be done in these other areas to ensure a renewable energy supply. Too much is at stake for us to ignore the development of renewable energy sources. Our current lifestyle and sustaining the world’s current population is dependant on our success. Mankind is at a critical point in history. Either we find a renewable source now, so we can go forward and explore more of the universe, or we fall back to earlier times and life will go back to being the way it was 2000 years ago.

Fry, Tony “Ecologies of Steel”, Eco Design Foundation (2003)

Oostheok, K.J.W. “The Role of Wood in History”, (2000)

Bates, D,”The Oil Supply and Demand Situation, An ATSNN Outlook”, (2004)

Moyers, Bill, “Coal Facts and Folklore”, (August, 2002)

Clayton Mark 2004 “America’s New Coal Rush”. The Christian Science Monitor (Feb 26, 2004)

M'Cheyne, Robert Murray,” "Lebanon - its Scenery and Allusions", (1997)

“Fossil Fuels - Coal, Oil and Natural Gas”,

“World Population Growth Chart” , (1996)

Francis David R. 2004. “Has Global Oil Peaked”. The Christian Science Monitor (Jan 29,2004)

[Edited on 24-4-2004 by dbates]

[Edited on 27-5-2004 by dbates]

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