The price of oil has about doubled in less than a year. Coal has jumped up a similar percentage, too. The specialty press, the Internet writers, mainstream media, investors, producers and customers are by some perspective or another agog at the whole thing. Things are different now and will get a lot more different. The good ol’ days are gone.

Looking out for oneself suggests everyone have a crystal ball that is dead on accurate. There is no such thing, but the hard and fast facts can be put down to easy sets that can be grasped for short and long term planning.

There is energy and there is fuel. The difference is that energy is potential to be turned into work and fuel is a store of energy -or- heat is energy, gasoline is fuel. You can use gasoline to form heat energy and that energy then powers a tool to do the desired work. It’s always a set of steps from original energy to work getting done.

Energy is abundant but in limited means of access. It falls from the sky as solar radiation, it warms everything upon which it falls driving weather and thermal solar collectors, it powers the biological process of photosynthesis, and it can be converted to electrical potential with solar panels. About half of the planet is flooded by it all of the time. There is plenty of it and the task is to catch it and control it for doing our bidding.

Energy is below us in the form of heat from the earth’s core. We can and do harvest a tiny bit around the globe in special places. Geothermal heat is available at some level of quality about everywhere on earth.

We can actually make energy. The big deal about fission back in the late 1940s and early 1950s was because humanity understood that fission was energy creation. It has blessed and haunted ever since, as the release of energy can be both sudden and violent or calmly controlled to a smooth metering of energy release. Fusion is also known to release energy and the mastery of physics has managed to release it very quickly and violently. The engineering problem is to release it without putting more energy in than comes out in a slow controlled way.

That’s it, four sources of energy.

At the other end is people using energy. Turning on the computer, the TV or other appliances and toggling the light switch are all using electrical potential energy. Cooking food, driving the car, flying on vacation are ways that burn fuel to release energy for doing work. We (mostly) burn fuels. Oxidizing fuels releases the heat and we use the heat or use the pressure the heat can make to force the function of machines.

That’s about it, heating something, forcing electrons to move, making a light source, pressurizing something to make a machine function. Not a lot of end results either.

The problems and opportunities are between the existence of energy sources and the work we want done. Electricity is handy when the potential is as close as a switch or a plug for the cord. Fuels are great because they contain energy and can be taken along and used as needed. This is actually a really good system.

But. Those merits need addressed.

A solar panel putting out 12 volts with enough amps to drive a lamp would be quite efficient as a path from the source to the work. While not likely an investment efficient path yet, the two tools of a solar panel and lamp connected by a wire is a very short path. At the other extreme can be a wide range of processes. One could be sunlight, a corn plant, the farmer and all his land, seed, fertilizer, pest controls, and machinery, transport of the corn to the ethanol maker with a factory, more inputs, more energy, more transport to a fuel depot, more transport to a gas station and then into a car that might be 18% efficient weighing 1.75 tons carrying a 150 lbs of person. A very long path indeed. But the ethanol does contain more energy for the car than used to make it.

That is the zone of the merits, from the source of energy to the work. For each path that begins with one of four sources, there ends a short list of work to do. There are lots of paths and lots of steps in any path. The investment, operating costs, and prices needed to support them determine what will be the next big thing in energy and fuel.

So far, humanity has exploited the fact that solar energy on to plants, geological compression and heat have set up a store of low cost and readily accessible raw fuel in oil, gas and coal. The early steps have been completed and waiting for a long time. However, there is a finite amount of that fuel at any given price. At $25 a barrel there is very, very little. At $125 per barrel – barely enough. At $500 per barrel, there will be plenty – for anyone willing to pay it. That is a short-term problem as the high price makes it possible to invest in other paths to provide energy and fuel.

The other main factor is the rate of use to do a given amount of work or how efficient is any step in a path from energy to work. One hard and difficult fact is that ancient raw fuel has been so cheap for so long that the human investment is deeply tied to concepts in peoples mind’s from energy and fuel producers to manufacturers through to consumers permitting very poor efficiencies. Against that is an astonishing amount of improvement. The U.S. for example has greatly reduced the energy input for a share of an economic output unit primarily from the efforts of business to gain efficiency. Households have improved but added more workload.

The cruel honesty is in the investment and operating costs that determine the cost of each step and in turn the price of an end product. From the raw energy at the front adding each step along the way to the ending of the work done, the total investment divided by the time it would last, the operating costs, and the efficiency of the tools employed will tell us the viability of any path.

Physics and the engineering at the current instant will tell you what is possible. The innovative work in engineering from microbiology to fusion and every step of every path is at some level of intensity. The matter before each of us is to get up to speed on the paths and grasp the steps so we can see the potential in competitiveness, marketability, investability and longevity of the ideas that are coming at us at incredible rates.

The Cruel Honesty of the Merits is efficiency in all ways, investment, operating cost and efficient use. The fastest personal solutions are in efficient devices that use energy and fuels.

Others make bets that the price of oil be such by some date. I’m not into gambling or speculation, but one thing is clear, the demand for energized work has out stripped the energy supply and there is no going back. Reductions can occur but history repeats itself. Getting more fossil fuel is an ever increasingly costly effort and the door to other forms of fueling and energy production and use is huge, wide open and growing. The fossil fuel industry is basking in the glaring bright light before the slow dimming to a small soft glow.

Cruel honesty . . . for us right now, today, merit is in efficiency. Miles per dollar, gallons of hot water per dollar, warm or cool house hours per dollar, something per dollar. Are the tools you’re buying efficient enough for the merits of your money?


7 Comments so far

  1. Pages tagged "the amps" on May 23, 2008 12:56 PM

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  2. ondrejch on May 25, 2008 1:12 AM

    “The big deal about fission back in the late 1940s and early 1950s was because humanity understood that fission was energy creation.”

    rather: “The big deal about fission back in the late 1940s and early 1950s was because humanity understood that fission was energy creation at nuclear level, principally different from combustion heat. What is more, this fundamentally new fire was 10^8x more powerful than carbon fuel combustion per unit of matter.”

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