that we will eventually live in a world without fossil fuels, that
is, without petroleum, coal, or natural gas. Will we all starve to
death or devolve into roving bands of barbarians? If business as
usual continues indefinitely, those outcomes are definitely
possible, but let us further assume that reason will prevail and we
all agree to restructure society so that it could get along without
fossil fuels. What would we need to do?
The first task would be to finish the electrification of
society that was temporarily postponed by the discovery of large
amounts of petroleum within the crust of our planet. Since most
electricity is currently generated from fossil fuel-based utility
plants, that means that we will need some other way to generate
electricity. But we also need to address the last question before we
get on with the job of total electrification: why not use some other
source of fuel for our energy needs, such as biofuels?
Wikipedia defines a fuel as “any material that is capable of
releasing energy when its chemical or physical structure is altered.
Fuel releases its energy either through chemical means, such as
combustion, or nuclear means, such as nuclear fission or nuclear
fusion”. Webster’s definition is a little more succinct, “a material
used to produce heat or power by burning”, or “a material from which
atomic energy can be liberated especially in a reactor”. Leaving
aside nuclear fuel, then, we need something that can be burned. Wood
was the main fuel before coal, to be followed by petroleum and
People blithely assume that some new technology will pop up
from somewhere to save us from the disappearance of fossil fuels,
because “we’ve always invented something new”. No we haven’t.
Particularly in America, the entire suburban structure of the
country is based on a nineteenth century anachronism.
Burn, baby, burn
Burning is the main way in which a fuel yields useful energy. But
here lies a big problem. First of all, burning things is bad for the
air, the water, and the soil. All kinds of harmful pollutants are
released, especially in the case of coal; and then there are the
carbon dioxide emissions.
Second, and less well-understood, burning can result in huge
losses of energy; in other words, burning is an inefficient process.
When the first coal-burning plants were used by Thomas Edison to
produce electricity, he was able to use only about 4% of the energy
from the coal, but much of the rest of the energy was captured as
heat, and since the power plants were in New York City, much of the
waste heat was used. The consolidation of utilities led to much more
efficient generation of electricity by coal-fired plants, up to 30%,
but the use of the waste heat virtually disappeared, because the
plants were now located outside the cities. Now, fully 67% of the
energy from coal plants is wasted, because burning things generates
more energy in the form of heat than in the form that we want.
Third, and following from the first two, burning fuel in
transportation equipment like cars, planes, and trains is incredibly
inefficient because most of the energy escapes—again, in the waste
of heat—and the ensuing pollution
significantly increases the hidden cost of such burning. At least in
the case of cars and trucks, this burning is the result of relying
on something called the internal combustion engine.
specialists in technological history would know what an internal
combustion engine is if it were not for petroleum. The only reason
such an incredibly inefficient device could be used on such a wide
scale is because it is uniquely adapted, like some superspecialized
organism in some freaky part of an isolated ecosystem, to the
extraordinary energy potential of oil. The internal combustion
engine is the brother of the external combustion engine, or as it is
better known, the steam engine. The steam engine is long gone, and
so, too, should have been the internal combustion engine. The
diesel-electric and electric train and the jet are much newer
technologies—the airplane is a newer technology. The internal
combustion engine was invented before the electricity-generating
electric turbine. It is a very old technology, completely unsuited
to a post-fossil-fuel world.
People should keep this in mind when they blithely assume that
some new technology will pop up from somewhere to save us from the
disappearance of fossil fuels, because “we’ve always invented
something new”. No we haven’t. Particularly in America, the entire
suburban structure of the country is based on a nineteenth century
Oh biofuels, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
The emerging elite consensus is that biofuels can be used as a
replacement fuel for peroleum. There are many reasons this will not
work in the long run. The best article I have found is called “Peak
Soil”. There are two additional
reasons, besides the problem that there isn’t enough land:
- the energy returned to energy invested is too low,
- ethanol is corrosive, and a few others.
First, the reason fossil fuels have so much energy is not
because they have trapped solar energy. The energy from fossil
fuels comes from the Earth’s energy, that is, geological forces that
cooked the plant life under great pressure for millions of years,
and so biofuels can’t possibly get anywhere near the same energy
potential as fossil fuels The energy coming from the Earth’s crust
and mantle are inherited from the Earth’s formation billions of
years ago, and as important as the Sun is, the Earth can proudly
claim ownership of its own energy sources. Fossil fuels are not
really plant-derived fuels, they are Earth-derived fuels, and people
should not think that there is any link between the two.
Plants use solar energy to suck the carbon out of the atmosphere,
the hydrogen out of the water, and put them together to form a
hydrocarbon. If anything, plants make the situation worse,
energy-wise, because they proceed to attach the hydrocarbons to
other structures in the plant, thus making the hydrogen more
difficult to use. Hydrogen and oxygen are the main actors of the
combustion process; the carbon is a convenient place to attach
hydrogen. That is why oil is better than coal, because it is
basically composed only of carbon and hydrogen; oil is derived from
algae, which don’t process the hydrocarbons as much as the more
developed plants that make up coal. In effect, the Earth’s
geological forces undid the “damage” that the plants did
using solar energy, by purifying the plant matter back into carbon
The result of all this is that the energy returned on energy
invested, or eroei, for biofuels is either bad or awful, and
basically can’t sustain anything as inefficient as an internal
combustion engine, on a national or global scale.
to look at it is this: it takes plant-eating animals 16 hours a day
of munching on plants to extract enough energy to survive, while
large carnivores like lions only need meat once a day, at most.
That’s why humans evolved to eat meat; if they had to eat only
plants, like our relatives the gorillas, we’d be munching all the
time, with no time left over for making things. Plants are a poor
source of energy.
Out, out, damn fuels!
Second, and a point that others have made, biofuel production
threatens the biosphere of the planet. There is a mass extinction
looming, being driven by the destruction of ecosystems, in
particular forests and grasslands and water systems. The issue of
mass extinction is starting to coalesce among scientists, but the general problem of
habitat destruction, or more ominously ecosystem destruction, could
be even worse. To simplify the problem as much as possible: even
without global warming, at the rate we are going we are heading
toward a Desert Earth, because most of the soil and water that can
grow plants is being destroyed.
let’s look at corn ethanol production, which is the most egregious
example of biofuels. One consequence has been that as soybeans are
taken out of production in the U.S. to grow more corn for ethanol,
the soybeans are instead produced in Brazil, which then cuts down
more rain forest to grow the soybeans. So even when a tropical
country is not accelerating deforestation to grow biofuels—by
increasing biofuel production—somewhere the forests (or grasslands)
are being cut down somewhere else to make up for the shortfall
created by the biofuel production. In a final bit of irony (or
tragedy), by cutting down rainforests in Indonesia to grow palm
plants for palm oil, Indonesia has become the biggest emitter of
carbon after China and the U.S. because of the fires and rotting
from the deforestation.
Historically, deforestation occurred in order to make room for
- to use wood as a material, and
- to use it as a fuel.
The demise of British forests led to the greater use of coal,
thus helping lead to the Industrial Revolution. Today, forests are
still being destroyed for the same three reasons, but with more
people around, the destruction is proceeding apace. While the
destruction based on energy use has been restricted to poor people,
mostly for cooking, the hysteria that may arise in the developed
world from dwindling oil supplies could lead to redoubled efforts to
exploit every available nook and cranny on the planet.
Even if the developed world was so colossally inhumane as to let
most of the planet eat cake while everyone’s farmland was being used
to fuel automobiles, the internal combustion engine would still
eventually be tossed into the dustbin of history. All plants depend
on soil, and the soils of the world have been mined of their value
and not been allowed to recover. Without fossil fuels to create
fertilizers and pesticides, the return on biofuel plants would
decline even further, and if the soils run out, then by definition,
we have a desert, and no biofuels either.
King CONG is dead
Again, assuming that nuclear fuels have many of the same problems
as other fuels, then it is reasonable to argue that coal, oil,
nukes, and gas (King CONG, to use Harvey Wasserman’s phrase), and,
in fact, all fuels, are doomed. We need to create a
As it so happens, much of 19th century science and much of 20th
century technological development was focused on the development of
a different source of energy: electricity. Electricity has a number
- First, unlike fuel, it doesn’t burn.
- Second, it has several uses: to move things, particularly
motors; for communications and information technology; for
heating and cooling; and for lighting.
- Third, there are a large number of sustainable ways to
generate electricity, from using magnets as in wind or water
turbine electrical generation, or photovoltaic transfer, as in
solar panels, or using heat sources, as in geothermal sources.
In short, everything fossil fuels do electricity can do
Actually, there is one thing that fuels are better constructed
for: storage. However, there are many creative solutions being
offered for this problem, the most straightforward being to pump
water to a higher elevation and use it as hydropower when needed. And hydrogen can be used for
storage, although for any other reason one can think of, hydrogen
will not save fuels from extinction.
Unfortunately, at the present time, not only is most electricity
generated from fossil fuels, but if we wanted to convert the biggest
user of petroleum, transportation equipment, from fuel use, the
demand for electricity would go up, as would occur if we replaced
the natural gas used for cooking, heating, and cooling. In a
following article, I will suggest how fossil fuels could be
augmented with renewable technology. First, we need to understand
how electricity is currently used, so that we can understand how to
restructure society so that we can either use less electricity or
generate it sustainably.
By the numbers
The first thing to know about electricity use is that the numbers
are staggering, and that it can be difficult to keep track of
magnitudes. Let’s start with one basic statistic: electricity use
for the United States for one year. This is usually stated in
kilowatt hours, or one thousand watts used in one hour. While one
thousand might sound like a lot, it is an infinitesimal amount
compared to total national usage. In order to talk about how much
electricity various sectors of the economy consume, it is necessary
to talk in units of a billion kilowatt hours. In fact,
currently the U.S. economy uses about 4,000 billion kilowatt
hours per year. We could instead just say that the U.S. uses 4
Petawatts. But then when we discussed other parts of the economy, we
would have to get into terawatts, gigawatts, and megawatts. So to
avoid the trouble of translating in your head, I will stick to
billion kilowatt hours as the basic unit of electricity use.
Electricity use in the U.S. can be divided into three broad
sectors: Household, commercial, and industrial. Transportation will
eventually become a fourth, but it currently is 98% the province of
petroleum. Using 2002 data, manufacturing used 27.3% of electricity,
commercial buildings used 30.5%, and households 35%, out of a total
of 3,625 billion kilowatt hours used in 2002.
Industrial usage breaks down this way (all percentages are
relative to the entire electrical output):
Notice that machinery and electronics (including electrical
equipment) uses only 2.1% of electricity; even the construction of
transportation equipment uses only 1.4%, indicating that even if all
automobile and airplane construction was transformed to create
trains, the electrical output would not need to be significantly
increased. The industrial core of the U.S., what are called the
“engineering industries”, therefore consume only 3.5% of electrical
output. Even if we assume that a fully reindustrialized American
economy would require a doubling of engineering industries, this
would still only bring electrical use to about 7% of current
Now let’s look at commercial buildings:
Retail – including malls and the Walmarts of the world – uses
more electricity than all machinery construction. And this is just
electricity, not the fuel used to cart the goods all over the world.
Retail and offices together use one-eighth of all electricity
consumption. If we look at the end-use of the electricity use in the
commercial sector, we can see what all that electricity is being
Now let’s look at household electricity use, and we will see
similar categories of end-use:
For all the talk about compact fluorescent lightbulbs, it looks
from the data that lighting in commercial establishments is
responsible for over twice as much electrical use as in the home! So
much for solving global warming by using better light bulbs. For
some reason, the plasma screen TV is often singled out as a
gluttonous expenditure of electricity, when in fact all home
electronics only account for 2.5% of electrical use, including home
computers and stereos. Office equipment used by commercial
establishments, at 5.5%, are twice as gluttonous as the home.
If we add up all space heating, cooling, ventilation, and water
heating across commercial and residential buildings, we arrive at
the figure of 26%, without even considering natural gas, which is
heavily used for heating. This 26% is eminently reducible by
changing the building itself; one estimate is that at least 50% of
energy use for heating and cooling could be cut in this way. In addition, home and
commercial refrigeration adds 8.6% of electrical use, when there are
probably many ways to make these much more efficient.
If you have ever read Walt Whitman’s “I sing the body electric”,
a part of his masterpiece “Leaves of grass”, you may be impressed
with his celebration of all of the various parts of the human body.
I wish I could say the same for the various uses of electricity in
the United States (and any other industrial country), but much of it
is not a pretty picture. There is much electrical output that could
be saved with recycling, outright elimination, retrofitted
buildings, and a general restructuring of the economy, but much of
electrical use would conceivably remain in any wealthy society.
In my forthcoming articles, I will analyze the use of natural gas
and estimate the electricity that would be needed to replace it, as
well as the huge problem of replacing our fuel-based transportation
system and agricultural system with electrical-based systems.
Finally, an attempt will be made to demonstrate that all of our
electrical needs in a truly sustainable economy can be met with
renewable energy of wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower.
Jon Rynn can be reached at
This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need
 According to the
Wikipedia entry on the internal combustion engine, “Most internal
combustion engines waste about 36% of the energy in gasoline as heat
lost to the cooling system and another 38% through the exhaust. The
rest, about 6%, is lost to friction”, yielding about a 20%
mechanical efficiency. If you consider that the occupants of the
automobile take up a very small proportion of the total weight of
the automobile, then the efficiency moves toward 1%.
 Alice Friedman, “Peak
Soil: Why cellulosic ethanol, biofuels are unsustainable and a
threat to America”.
 See, for instance, http://www.well.com/~davidu/extinction.html.
 Gar Lipow, “Modular
 The following data was
calculated in the following way: industrial usage was obtained from
11.1 Electricity: Components of Net Demand, 2002, using net
demand for electricity, except for plastics. Purchased.
For commercial buildings by activity: at Table
C13A. Total Electricity Consumption and Expenditures for All
Buildings, 2003, principal building activity, Site, Billion Kwh
By end-use: Table
1. End-Use Consumption for Natural Gas, Electricity, and Fuel
Oil, 1999 (Preliminary Estimates), Electricity trillion btu”. I
used these figures to determine the percentages of commercial
For household use: Table
US-1. Electricity Consumption by End Use in U.S. Households,
In order to syncronize these three tables, (and the end-use
commercial table), I used a nation-wide table, Table
7.2. Retail Sales and Direct Use of Electricity to Ultimate
Customers by Sector, by Provider, 1994 through 2005
(Megawatthours), for the year 2002. I added 100 billion kwh for
“Other” direct uses, because for some reason earlier years indicate
about 100 billion while later years have no estimates. The direct
uses table gives a total of 990 billion kwh, which is 26 billion kwh
more than the industrial table, above, so I counted the 26 billion
as other industrial use. The direct use total for commercial for
2002 was 6% larger than the commercial building data for 2003,
because of revisions, so I multiplied all commercial data by 6%. In
the same way, I added 11% to household numbers. Since the relative
percentages do not change very much from year to year, this gives an
approximation of relative sector use of electricity across the
 Don Fitz, “When building
green ain’t so green”.