The Bottomless Well – Huber & Mills (2005)

This weekend I read The Bottomless Well (subtitled ‘The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy’) by Peter Huber and Mark Mills. As is probably clear, these folks are going against the now frequently seen ‘energy crisis’ theme that is getting quite a bit of play in books like ‘The End of Oil’. I had seen this book once before, and when I found it again I decided I should read it to challenge some of my own opinions on the subject.

The main point that the authors hammer home (repeatedly) is that our use of energy, going back to the steam engine (if not earlier), is to use it to get more energy, and to increase the effective power of that energy. The steam engine was devised by Watt to pump water out of coal mines, so more coal could be pulled out. Nowadays we use lasers (very ‘ordered’ power) to create computers that we can use to find more energy (among other things). They say that increasingly we are paying not so much for the basic fuel but for the additional hardware and processing that goes into making the energy ‘ordered.’ ‘The virtue of waste’ line comes from the inevitable output of heat as we increase the order of the energy (2nd law of thermodynamics).

They argue convincingly that gains in efficiency in the use of energy tend to increase our demand for it. While it’s true that if we just kept using exactly the things we use today but increase the efficiency, we’d need less energy, but in fact we just keep creating more and more uses of electricity, and demand continues to rise.

They show one breakdown of the use of different types of energy, and show that most of our transportation is fueled by oil, while most electricity is created from gas and nuclear, and heating uses oil and gas. They don’t really deal with the ‘Peak Oil’ argument of world production levels, and instead make claims based on historical trends of increasing efficiency in pumping oil. While there may well be a vast supply of ‘sand oil’ up in Canada, the economics of the situation will have to change quite a bit before there’s a reason to extract it. Moving cars from internal combustion to increased use of electricity is discussed in detail.

They acknowledge that we will probably be able to come up with increasingly efficient solar collectors and wind energy collectors, but argue that these increases will need to trump increases in nuclear power efficiency to really make headway. (It is interesting to note that some formerly ‘green’ voices have started talking about nuclear power.)

My sense is that their arguments may well hold up over the long-term, but I think they gloss over the pains of transitioning out of oil as it becomes increasingly expensive. I think we’ve built in many assumptions of cheap oil into the way we’ve structured our society (required use of cars for most Americans, moving materials all around the world) that could break down in the coming decades.

Most gratuitous line from the book was in a short section about military use of energy (p. 149): “our distant wars are now fought, once again, by a few, a happy few, a band of brothers, while the rest of us lie a-bed, watching their progress on Fox.”

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