Energy, What Is It? And In What Way Does It Change our Lives?
During presentations at conferences and during our energy audits, we often observe that a lot of people have difficulty defining what energy is. Setting aside the confusion surrounding the notions of power, energy and the units that measure them (kW and kWh), it should be noted that energy is a quantifiable value that describes a system’s change of state. In other words, unless you live the life of a hermit in the forest, nearly everything around you has, in one way or another, been created with the help of energy. Energy is needed to raise or lower a temperature, to increase an object’s pressure or to pour molten metal. It is required to fabricate clothing or to go to work in the morning. Your computer needs energy to operate. In addition, it took nearly 250 litres of oil to build it and close to a ton of CO₂ was emitted during the process.
Since energy is quantifiable, it can be measured and the resulting data can be incorporated in mathematical formulas as well as in equations for physical processes that are referred to as thermodynamics and mechanics. Additionally, given that energy is not free ($/kWh), economic scenarios can be established in circumstances when it is consumed or saved.
Energy has always been used in one form or another by mankind. In ancient times, it was fire. In nature, energy is present in a raw state. To perform work or generate power, a converter is required. For example, when eating food, we draw energy from nature and convert it into heat and work. Two hundred years ago when communities operated mills, they transformed energy from the wind or water into work. The same thing happened with sailing vessels which were driven over water by the energy contained in the wind.
During that period, energy in all its forms was renewable. So were the converters which were often built of wood. Today, people talk about renewable energy but they forget that humanity is just coming out of this form of energy and replaced it with a far more practical source: fossil fuel. It’s what ushered in our population explosion and reduced the number of people working in agriculture. Two hundred years ago, at least a third of humanity worked in the fields. Thanks to machines (non-renewable metal converters) and oil (also non-renewable), it became possible to produce work on demand. We no longer need to wait for the wind to pick up or the sun to shine to operate our machines. Today, we only need to open a valve or push a button and we’re in business.
However, the problem with most forms of renewable energy, with the exception of hydroelectricity, is that they are not controllable. In order for them to become so, unbelievably complex and costly systems have to be added to the power grid and such systems require extremely large amounts of various metals and considerable non-renewable energy to manufacture them. I often say jokingly that the number of wind generators or solar panels required to manufacture these systems without having to resort to non-renewable sources would be so high that we would have no other choice but to concede that widespread use of this form of energy is simply not feasible. Besides, at the current rate of global growth, it is delusional to believe that one day we will be able to replace fossil fuel with renewable energy. It’s the main reason why, despite all the announcements and grand declarations, renewable energy accounts for less than 2% of all the energy consumed on the planet today.
In the end, we are addicted to fossil fuel, mainly in transports, and there is practically nothing that exists to replace it when considering the enormous amount of energy consumed worldwide. Worse, in burning it, we are altering our planet’s mild climate and it’s this very climate that enabled us to progress. It’s important to note that between the most recent ice age and the climate in which we currently live, i.e. over numerous millennia, the planet’s average temperature rose by 5 °C and, over the course of this period, our ecosystem was subjected to massive but gradual transformations (retreat of the ice caps, revegetation of vast expanses of land, rise in sea levels, etc.). These days, climate experts are forecasting an average temperature increase of 2 °C over the coming decades, which may seem insignificant but which will actually provoke a radical and unbridled disruption of nature, the impacts of which are unimaginable.
As a result, we now have three swords of Damocles hanging over our heads: our fossil fuel reserves are finite, there is practically nothing that could replace them, and we are poisoning our ecosystem by consuming them.
The only logical solution would be to reduce or even completely stop using fossil fuels. But then we would be faced with another problem: the amount of energy consumed, and fossil fuel, in a given country is directly proportional to its GDP. Reducing or stopping oil consumption would end up lowering our GDP, and that would translate into a recession. To achieve balance, we would have to implement a serious diet, a strict family planning program, shut down coal-fired power plants that currently produce over 40 % of the world’s electricity, and revise growth-related economic indicators that are not viable over the long term. No politician worthy of the name would propose such a solution in his electoral platform. In fact, such a change would be so profound that no democratic society would accept it. It’s much more convenient for elected officials to ease their conscience by taking part in Conferences of the Parties (COPs) that contribute nothing to the reduction of greenhouse gases worldwide (GHGs have actually increased since their creation), or by setting forth goals that are never achieved.
The current situation is too dire and it requires changes of such magnitude that people prefer to ignore them and bury their heads in the sand. As long as this lasts, they will glide unconcerned amidst the clouds that are the Amazons and the Walmarts of this world.
Also, it’s noteworthy that energy, and therefore oil, enabled the emergence of democracy as we know it today. It functions well when people have sufficient food, a good job and, with the click of a mouse, can have delivered to their door products from the other end of the planet. Unfortunately, this lifestyle is tied to energy and to machines that gorge on oil. Our food supply today depends on oil which plays a key role in fertilizers, tractors, harvesters, transportation, the cold chain, and food processing.
Humans have a rather thin shell when it comes to meddling with their standard of living. However, when it is no longer around, they won’t have one. They will have to make drastic decisions that will probably not be compatible with our democratic society. History shows that dictatorships take root more easily when entire populations revolt. Climate change and resource depletion put democracy at risk.
I often refer to the two-hundred-years-ago period (before the industrial revolution) because it’s not that far back in time and it’s still present in our imagination. I believe that the contrast between our standard of living two hundred years from now and the one we’re experiencing today will be just as significant.
Whether by choice or by obligation, we must prepare or else resign ourselves to enduring the profound changes that lie ahead. The problem is that the human brain is not wired to address such outcomes. We act in response to short term events, usually within an electoral cycle. We like to describe ourselves as an adaptable species. The real challenge with regards to our adaptability will soon be upon us and, two hundred years from now, we will see the extent to which mankind has actually succeeded in adjusting to such changes.
Saving energy is not a priority for most businesses. I described the main reason in my previous article entitled Fuel Costs Nothing. Actually, oil really does cost nothing. What we pay for are the people who develop it. All of the resources that the earth can offer us are free but not unlimited. And when a resource costs nothing, it’s worth nothing in the minds of many people. If a business earmarks 5 % of its budget to energy costs, then on the scale of its concerns, that energy’s significance will only amount to 5 %. It’s a strange way of reasoning. If we apply this same logic to the human body, we will find that our brain represents only 2 % of our total weight. Yet, without a brain, we’re nothing.
Without energy, our society isn’t worth anything either and it’s very likely that neither is your business.
This article was inspired by research studies carried out by Jean-Marc Jancovici and Carbone 4.
Association of Energy Engineers
Certified Energy Manager (CEM)
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