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Review: Energy in Nature and Society

Tim Lenton, Nature
Energy in Nature and Society
by Vaclav Smil
MIT Press: 2008. 512 pp. $70, £45.95

… In a feat unprecedented for a single animal species, humanity’s total energy use has now exceeded that of the entire ancient biosphere before oxygenic photosynthesis, reaching about a tenth of the energy processed by today’s biosphere. Almost half of the world’s total primary energy supply is consumed by the rich G8 nations, despite their having only 12% of the world’s population. The poorest quarter of humanity consumes less than 3%. For them, even modest increases in per capita energy consumption significantly reduce infant mortality and increase life expectancy. Above about 60 gigajoules per capita (the amount used, for example, by citizens of the French city of Lyon in 1960) these benefits level off, indicating that profligate energy use bears little on quality of life. Consequently, Smil advocates that rich people should reduce their energy consumption to allow poorer people to increase theirs.

… Smil argues that we should stop the seemingly endless growth of energy consumption while we switch to cleaner and more sustainable sources of power.

In the long term, Smil’s solution is solar power, because the total supply of sunlight at Earth’s surface exceeds current global fossil-fuel consumption by more than a thousand times. Until then, he supports a careful transition away from fossil fuels and points out that carbon capture and storage have limited capacity. He dismisses most renewable energy sources because their power densities are too low to supply the needs of the present global population, let alone future ones.
(10 April 2008)

A letter to governor Gibbons of Nevada
James Hansen, personal website
To: Governor Jim Gibbons
From: James Hansen, NASA Goddard Institute and Columbia University Earth Institute
Subject: A Plea for Your Leadership

Dear Governor Gibbons,

I am honored to be the recipient of the Desert Research Institute’s annual Nevada Medal this year and to attend the awards ceremonies hosted by you and the First Lady.

I hope that I may communicate with you as a fellow parent and grandparent about a matter that will have great effects upon the lives of our loved ones. I refer to climate change, specifically global warming in response to human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) and other pollutants. This topic has long remained in the background, but it is now poised to become a dominant national and international issue in years ahead.

Global warming presents challenges to political leaders, but also great opportunities, especially for your state. Nevada has the potential to be a national leader in protecting the environment and implementing technologies that can mitigate the crisis posed by global warming.

First, however, I want to make you aware of rapid progress in understanding of global warming. Warming so far, averaging 2 degrees Fahrenheit over land areas, is smaller than weather fluctuations. Yet it already has noticeable effects and more is “in the pipeline”, even without further increases of CO2, because of climate system inertia that delays the full climate response.

Effects of global warming are already seen in Nevada. One result is increased wildfires.

(14 April 2008)
After the letter to Nevada governer Gibbons, climatologist appends several page of “Basic Fossil Fuel Facts.”

Unconventional Oil: Tar Sands and Shale Oil – EROI on the Web, Part 3 of 5

Various, The Oil Drum
This is 3rd in a series of 5 guest posts by Professor Charles Hall of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry describing the energy statistic, “EROI” for various fuels. As has been discussed often on this site, net energy analysis is a vitally important concept – just as we primarily care about our take home pay which is our salary minus the taxes, we should care about our ‘take home’ energy, which is what is left after energy costs have been accounted for. As important as it is, this measure is not easy to quantify …


In conclusion, tar sands are an economically and energetically viable, although hardly ideal, approach to maintaining liquid fuel supplies. The most severe problem is probably their local and global environmental impact, and they are already impacting Canadian CO2 releases significantly. But the tar sands are unlikely to make a large impact on overall supply of liquid fuels because their supply is likely to be rate, rather than total resource limited. If the maximum rate were to grow to about 2 billion barrels a year this would approximately meet Canada’s demand and could leave relatively little for export if Canada’s production of conventional oil continues to decline. Achieving even this rate of production from tar sands is uncertain because of growing concerns about environmental impacts downstream and insufficient hydrogen and water.

… Conclusion to APPENDIX E. Shale oil

In conclusion, although shale oils represent a huge potential resource they have a history of “always a bridesmaid and never a bride” because as prices for oil increase the prices for extracting shale oil have increased as well. This history represents the very real problems of generating a useful product from the resource. The main problems include the distance of the shale from both the water and labor needed to extract it, the large environmental impact compared to conventional oil and the relatively low EROI . In addition, with both shale and tar sands there is some disagreement whether the in situ should be charged as an energy opportunity cost, (in the same sense that bagasse could be in sugar cane ethanol). Ultimately, the question is, if conventional oil becomes very scarce whether a resource such as shale oil will be developed regardless of cost.
(14 April 2008)