Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Truth About Energy is the truth about change.

John K. White

A quick Internet search reveals various Truth About books: on nutrition, cancer, Covid, vinyl records, lies, …, to name a few. But whose truth should we believe, learn about, or invest precious time reading? In an ever-confusing and divided world, one has to do one’s homework. What’s more, confirmation bias is rampant, especially in social media where algorithms are purposely designed to enrage to engage. My truths versus yours to pump up the advertising clicks.

Falling water generates electric power for the masses on the way to modernity at Niagara Falls

So what is my Truth About Energy about? It’s about energy in all its forms: coal, biomass, oil, gasoline/diesel, methane, nuclear (Part I: Out with the Bad); solar (photovoltaic and thermal), wind, water, geothermal, storage, hydrogen, batteries, lithium, EVs, the smart grid (Part II: In with the New); and conservation (Part III: Less is More). We start with the Industrial Revolution and resultant increase in fossil-fuel combustion over the past two centuries, which has created an unsustainable lifestyle of consumption and contamination, and end with strategies to reduce overconsumption and return the earth to the earth. Along the way, we look at how each technology works, both old and new, as well as the scientific, economic, and political ramifications.

Mostly, The Truth About Energy is about transitioning from brown to green and dirty to clean. Of course, change is never easy. We owe our lives to fossil fuels, literally, as world population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to over 8 billion today, thanks to easy access to cheap petroleum, refined into kerosene, gasoline, heating oil, and hundreds of everyday products we use without thinking, such as pharmaceuticals, plastics, and asphalt. Today’s modernity would be impossible without coal, oil, and gas.

To understand the changes, we must understand what fossil fuels are made of, where they come from, and how harmful they are as well as the latest in renewables (mono, poly, and third-gen photovoltaics, onshore, offshore, and micro wind turbines, intermittency, connectivity, …). One has only to watch the news to see the ongoing problems with unstable petroleum supply chains. China’s increasing control over renewables and electric vehicles fosters new concerns about the materials needed to power the future, such as lithium, cobalt, and rare-earth metals.

Comparing energy use from the past, one sees that change has begun, but is it fast enough, cheap enough, or fair enough? Water, wind, and sun (WWS) still lag behind fossil fuels despite being as cheap or cheaper. As global warming plays havoc with the climate, can we also insure that the new technologies will become accessible in time? Getting the right information and data is essential.

Some truths aren’t obvious or easily labelled, such as the start of the Industrial Revolution, pegged by some as 1830 and the first passenger steam train service between Liverpool and Manchester. Others cite 1776 and James Watt’s first general-purpose steam engine or 1800 when his exclusive patent expired, allowing others to modify his invention (itself modified from those of Newcomen, Papin, and Boyle). Some think the revolution is ongoing, unequally manifested in the richer developed countries and a still developing world. In fact, the Industrial Revolution was an energy revolution, tied to how things move: heated water vapor, a piston, motorized wheels, and electrons created by the coiled magnets in a megawatt-sized power plant.

Add in the work of other pioneering scientists and engineers to get a fuller picture of our first great industrial change: Alessandro Volta’s chemical battery (Pavia, 1799), Michael Faraday’s induction motor/generator (London, 1831), Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street coal-fired DC power plant (New York City, 1882), George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla’s first long-distance AC power plant (Niagara Falls, 1895), and Samuel Insull’s two-tier electric grid that spread the load to accommodate a disparate consumer base.

Today, renewable energy is upending the global economy, combining a well-established industrial past with the latest innovations in connectivity and green technologies. There are over 140 million American homes, with over 5 million new roofs each year, some now covered in affordable 400-W, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels (or incorporated into the roof), whose costs have dropped over a hundredfold in the past 4 decades. Business is booming and not just in sunny California, where new buildings must include scalable PV. One calculation showed that a 100-square-mile PV farm could power the entire US grid, even easier spread atop millions of homes, warehouses, and factories.

After installing the first grid-tied wind turbine (WT) north of Copenhagen in 1919 and the first offshore WT off the coast of Vindeby in 1991, Denmark regularly sports 100% wind-powered grid days, selling any excess to neighboring countries. China expects to have 400 GW of wind power by 2030 and 1 TW by 2050 (two-thirds grid capacity!). More storage and interconnectors are being built to smooth out intermittency in the daily wind and sun.

One in ten new cars sold are now electric, manufactured by Tesla, BYD, and other long-time carmakers playing catch up as they compete for more market share in a $3-trillion annual industry (100-million in annual sales, 12-year average lifetime, over 1 billion units). Electric vehicles (EVs) are following a similar exponential growth pattern to computers, cameras, and phones, reaching double-digit percentage sales for the first time last year (albeit now slowing without cheaper models). In some areas, hybrids are almost 50% of new sales.

Delivery vans and buses are being retooled with induction motors, easily recharged overnight via the existing grid. In Shenzhen, China, the entire 16,000-plus public bus fleet is now electric, dramatically cutting pollution in formerly smog-filled streets. Late to the game, fuel cells powered by green hydrogen (GH2) are now trying to outperform lithium-ion battery (LIB) for vehicles and storage. As with all new inventions (or reinventions) there are growing pains, such as a refilling infrastructure to combat charger anxiety to handle long-distance travel, but affordable models will make the electric makeover unstoppable.

Some are trying to subvert change, hoping to co-opt the vast revenues for themselves. “Net zero” is politically motivated as are the trillion dollars in subsidies to oil and gas interests ($200 billion annual profit for the Big 7). Carbon capture is just another smoke screen to prolong the past, while few are questioning ongoing fossil-fuel combustion that generates toxic emissions, geographical inequality, armed supply chains, and global warming, which damages our health, safety, and security. No one will change before ensuring a lucrative carve out.

As with all revolutions, we begin the new amid the old, learning to incorporate change via improved methods, adaptation, and our own habits. Soon we will borrow a cup of charge as easily as a cup of sugar as electric vehicles (batteries on wheels) are turned into real-time storage devices and electrical storage becomes as common as a hot-water tank. Despite the ongoing denialism and delayism, clean renewable energy is increasing.

In an uncertain future, energy literacy is essential. Knowledge is power, from the earth’s 23.5-degree tilt causing the seasons and the tropics (not the earth-sun distance) to ½ billionth of the sun’s irradiance hitting the earth to give us 1.4 kW/m2 at the top of a 100-km thick atmosphere, which properly harnessed can power the world. We don’t have to take science on faith. We don’t have to fear the strange changes.

The hierarchy of social goods must also be addressed, a.k.a. a “just transition.” What is the real cost of container traffic through the Mediterranean-Red Sea when pollution is included? Phasing out carbon- and toxic PM-spewing, internal combustion engine vehicles from our streets? Closing mines and power plants in long-standing coal communities? The political dominoes of cancelling pipelines, banning fracking, and pausing LNG exports? Updating the grid to accommodate intermittent wind and solar sources? Removing consumers from a shared commons as in rooftop PV? It isn’t more government that concerns the naysayers, but no government.

In The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables, we learn about more than just energy as we change from a dirty, unsustainable past to a clean, renewable future. It is time to learn about energy and put into practice new ways of consuming in our everyday lives.

Title: The Truth About Energy

Author: John K. White

ISBN: 9781009433198

About The Author

John K. White

John K. White is a physicist, writer, and educator, who has worked in the engineering, science, and education fields in Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Spain. He is the edito...

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