Energy and the biophysical view of economic activity: from joules to fuels

The view of humanity’s energy supply and use presented last week painted a picture in the most abstract terms. The aggregate figures discussed there can be viewed as an attempt to describe all significant economic activity by means of a single quantitative measure. Such efforts may well have a familiar tone—in a sense, the data that the IEA provides in energy terms is a physical-world analogue to the financial-world perspective provided by bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—the IEA’s parent inter-governmental body—when it measures global economic activity in terms of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In this sense, we could view the 510 EJ total primary energy supply (TPES), and 350 EJ total final consumption (TFC) in 2009 as the energetic equivalent of saying that in 2009, global aggregate GDP was around US$60 trillion. Continue reading

Fueling an industrial world

With the initial phase of Beyond this Brief Anomaly’s inquiry complete, we now have in place the basic foundations that we’ll need for exploring our contemporary human situation from an energetic perspective. There’s much scope for introducing further technical detail—the physics and engineering perspective if you like—and we’ll certainly need that if we’re to develop the kind of energy literacy that I think will be beneficial in navigating the societal challenges and dilemmas we face. From here on in though, I’ll try to situate that in the context of the immediate questions that might be prudent for us, as a collective humanity, to consider as we work out how we’re going to live together on this physically finite and rather precious planet of ours.

It will come as no great surprise that I regard some of the most important questions we face as having energetic dimensions. In fact, draw the boundary wide enough—and in most cases, “wide enough” is not all that far—and questions around how we source our energy, and what we do with the energy so sourced, have critical implications for every significant challenge that confronts us. This is a straightforward entailment of the way that, as we’ve seen over the past couple of months, the energy concept relates to how we understand any situation in terms of its most fundamental physical aspects. Roughly speaking, the greater the scale of physical activity associated with any situation we’re dealing with—or on which that situation is itself dependent—the more likely it is that we’ll need to come to terms with its energetics. And given the nature of our principal energy sources, the longer the characteristic time horizon associated with any situation of interest, the more important its energetic aspects become. This is our starting point for today’s post, which in turn is intended to set the scene for the next inquiry phase. Continue reading