Free energy does not occur in nature

May 15, 2012

[F]ree energy does not occur in nature…

There’s one thing about that Orlov quote that has struck me over the years: how it applies more broadly than he originally meant it.

It’s not just that what we generally think of as free energy doesn’t occur in nature, but also that free energy does occur in the everyday lived environments of people in industrial nations, which we might thus say are unnatural. (To apply the name of this blog: if nature implies a lack of free energy, then the presence free energy implies a lack of nature.)

So what are instances of free energy that we experience in our lives, and why do they matter? They matter for two reasons: a) they’re the easiest places to save energy (and money) and b) they’re likely to go away in the coming decades. Before we get to some instances of the former, a couple of clarifications:

What does “free” mean in this context? It means someone pays for the energy in question, just not a member of the public who can receive that energy at no direct cost.

And what forms free energy are of interest? Obviously the sun’s energy isn’t an interesting thing to include, though it is “free energy” for some reasonable definitions of free and energy. What I’m most interested in is instances of energy provided for free (whatever the intent) to the public at large in everyday environments. Here I’m not going to include energy consumed by the government on my behalf (because all government action would fall into that category).

Put another way, I’d like to consider things that are free now that are unlikely to continue to be free in the coming years. They all represent slack in the system, symptoms of energy wealth. It’s in the disappearance of these items that a country like the United States might become more like a country like India is today.

So, to the list. I’ve organized it around the free energy in question:

Electricity. Go to any coffee shop, university building, or transit station, and you can get electricity for free. Just plug in to one of the outlets and draw as much juice as the outlet can handle.

Internet service. Many of the same institutions above provide free Internet service to users, which represents energy usage on the provider’s end on behalf of those users.

Air conditioning. Many public spaces—malls, public buildings, businesses, etc.—even extraordinarily large ones, are air conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter.

Refrigeration. Many stores keep non-perishable items such as sodas refrigerated. In addition, many if not most public water fountains have built-in refrigeration.

Foods. Due to long-standing agriculture policy in the U.S. we have an energy subsidy that’s delivered to us through most processed foods and nearly all meats due to subsidized corn and soy that are farmed using industrial agriculture.

Personal motion assistance. In most multi-level public places there are escalators and elevators to provide motion assistance. Some larger buildings such as airports even have moving walkways. Many of these devices don’t detect whether they’re in use: they just run continually. Automatic doors (both sliding and swing) are also ubiquitous, and often can’t even be avoided.

Disposable items. Paper and plastic shopping bags are the most common instance of free disposable items that have only recently been identified (by policymakers) as wasteful. Many other businesses provide other free disposable items, from disposable dishware, cups, and utensils to single-serving packages of just about everything.

Air travel. One of the most amazing sources of free energy is that of frequent flier mile rewards. Websites like flyertalk have long dedicated themselves to figuring out how to squeeze the most miles out of airline credit card offers, often with amazing (and ridiculous) results. With enough effort one can—apparently completely within the rules—get hundreds of thousands of frequent flier miles per year for zero personal financial cost, worth several trips around the world and vast quantities of jet fuel.

Oil. Finally, the strangest example of them all, one that deserves greater discussion: on a national level, Western (net oil importing) nations have deep deficits. That means they are borrowing many billions of dollars a day via bond issuance. However, via quantitative easing and other similar mechanisms, central banks are buying up a large fraction of those bonds. The proceeds, once the bonds mature, will be deposited back at the treasury (at least here in the U.S.). The money the central bank buys the treasuries with is created in a spreadsheet for that purpose, thereby increasing the money supply. Once this money is in the government’s books, it can, through its fiscal policy, do what governments do: use the money for various national priorities and thus disburse the money to businesses and individuals. That money, now in the hands of businesses and individuals can be used to buy oil and other commodities on the (global) market.

And that brings us full circle:

An economic arrangement can continue for quite some time after it becomes untenable, through sheer inertia. But at some point a tide of broken promises and invalidated assumptions sweeps it all out to sea. One such untenable arrangement rests on the notion that it is possible to perpetually borrow more and more money from abroad, to pay for more and more energy imports, while the price of these imports continues to double every few years. Free money with which to buy energy equals free energy, and free energy does not occur in nature. This must therefore be a transient condition. When the flow of energy snaps back toward equilibrium, much of the US economy will be forced to shut down.

Barath Raghavan

Barath Raghavan is a computer scientist who writes about the intersection of energy, environmental, and technological issues.

Tags: Consumption & Demand, Electricity, Food, Fossil Fuels, Oil, Waste