Sunday, August 17, 2008

The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts

The title of this book, The End of Oil, is really a misnomer. The book is more about the future of energy, its viability and the challenges the world faces in the future. So a little surprisingly, you’ll find in equal measure a discussion of gas, hydrogen power, green power etc. etc. You’ll also find plenty on sustainability, politics and the possibility of future energy wars.

All in all this is a pretty nifty book that gives an all round picture. Nor did I find it to be ideologically driven in any way. Common sense rules Paul Roberts’ arguments. He says the over consumption of oil by US citizens is plain stupid, but also criticises green groups.

Roberts is also a good writer. Many of the themes and topics I’ve read about in other books but could not get my head around are well explained here. Roberts has a lucid style that clarified what a cap-and-trade system is, and how a hydrogen fuelled car would work.

I’d call The End of Oil a non-alarmist book, unlike others on the same subject. He says we should not go too fast with Kyoto, which would keep those on the right happy. But balances this by saying that it is of the utmost importance that we get cracking with a range of measures to ensure a smooth as possible transition to a new energy future.

Roberts says we are all far too ignorant of where our energy comes from. We take things for granted and have a vague idea that magic technologies are just waiting in the wings to make things all right. This is not so. A safe energy future is something that will have to be worked towards, and it will not be achieved by individual volunteers switching off that light in the hallway.

It will happen by government setting in place incentives in the market, and by taxing polluters. Roberts makes a perfectly good argument that it was the market that made twentieth century technologies so successful (cars and electricity gobbling gadgets). It is only by putting the right signals into the market that there will be an incentive to create a new energy future. This means government policies.

Paul Roberts has written another book called The End of Food, which is no wonder, as he says that the first energy source was calories for humans to hunt and gather with.

From page seventy:

‘Photosynthesis begins when solar energy falls on a leaf and causes a water molecule inside to split into oxygen and hydrogen. This sundering is not easily accomplished; water is a very stable compound: its oxygen and hydrogen atoms are tightly bound. Splitting them apart required a great deal of energy – in this case, a burst of solar energy, which, in essence, attaches itself to the hydrogen atom. The cargo of solar energy makes the newly liberated hydrogen atom highly unstable. To regain stability, the hydrogen must now share its extra energy by binding with a new partner – in this case, an atom of carbon, to create a new compound, a carbohydrate, or sugar. This is why sugars are high-energy compounds: their bonds contain the solar energy brought over by the hydrogen. Sugars, in other words, are chemical storage for energy from the sun. and hydrogen is the energy carrier.’

Very much recommended.

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