|Energy plays a large part
in all our lives
here in the UK, yet how many of us do anything other than take its
granted - unless it spoils the view?
Trannon windfarm above Carno, Mid Wales
Retired senior oil
geologist Colin Campbell, a respected figure in the
current energy debate, has put it thus: "The Oil Age opened 150 years
ago, releasing a flood of cheap energy, such that today’s production is
equivalent in energy terms to 22 billion slaves working around the
That might sound to some like a preposterous statement, but let's do
Energy is measured in joules, and energy output in joules per second.
One joule per second is one watt, so a sixty watt lightbulb outputs 60
joules/second. OK so far?
Typical energy outputs of some familiar things are as follows:
A hummingbird in hover: ~1 joule/second
A human doing manual labour: ~100 joules/second
A horse at work: ~745 joules/second. This is equivalent to one
horsepower, so a 50 horsepower outboard engine at peak performance is
outputting 745 x 50 = 37,250 joules/second - or the work of 372.5 men.
Above: a lot of work
going to waste here in other words!
Now let's look at a barrel of regular oil. 1 barrel contains 34.97 UK
gallons, with an available energy output of a whopping
that's six billion one hundred million joules of energy.
An 8-hour man-day for a non-slacker consists of 60 x 60 x 8 = 28,800
seconds @ 100 joules/second
The total output is therefore = 28,000 seconds x 100 joules/second =
Let's now compare that to our barrel of oil:
6,100,000,000 joules (barrel of oil) divided by 2,880,000 (8-hour
man-day) = 2118. Yes - a 34.97 gallon barrel of crude oil contains the
energy output of
2118 man-days. That's one man working every day of the year for 5.8
Current global oil demand (purple in the above graph, with orange being
supply) is about 86 million barrels per day. 86
million x 2118 man-days gives us the rather ungainly figure of
182,148,000,000 man-days of oil-based energy consumed by Mankind each
and every day. This daily
figure is the equivalent of some poor bastard having to work
for 499,035,616 years without a day off. That's from the Cambrian
Period to now. Makes you feel tired just thinking about it!
This phenomenally-useful energy source, however, is running up against
constraints as demand grows in the new economies of India and China,
the big oilfields become depleted and the rate of new discoveries
decline. A big, newly-discovered oilfield these days might be announced
to contain an
estimated ten billion barrels of oil. It sounds a lot until we factor
in global daily demand:
10,000,000,000 divided by 86,000,000 = 116.27 days
The relative lack of easy targets, compared to 50 years ago, has led to
oil exploration taking place in more and more challenging places with
greater and more complex attendant risks, such as witnessed in the
Mexican Gulf this year. It
has led to the development of alternatives such as biofuels, oil-shales
and tar-sands, all of which require a lot more energy input to obtain
the equivalent of a barrel of oil, making it a lot more expensive to
Thus, the age of abundant cheap oil is to all intents and purposes
over, and the age of scarce oil is looming, bringing a headache for
public and policymakers alike worldwide.
This makes the resistance to the development of alternatives all the
more mind-boggling. Let's get one thing straight - in the absence of
technologies that are in the theoretical/experimental stage becoming
mainstream - such as controlled nuclear fusion - we will not be able to
replace the phenomenal abundance of oil-based energy straight away. As
oil phases itself out, we can phase in other sources and economise on
the way we use energy by radically changing our behaviour. However,
whilst the NIMBY syndrome is so prevalent even this will be difficult.
above: another view of
Trannon windfarm above Carno, Mid Wales
NIMBYism is a symptom of our modern age, where we take so much for
granted and little care about its source, so long as we cannot see it
from the living-room window. I'm as guilty of it as anybody - while,
for example, I sometimes use wind turbines as a useful foreground to my
storm images, I have a gut-feeling type of opposition to my favourite
wild landscapes around Nant-y-moch being dotted with them, as has been
proposed. Deep down I know that this is complete hypocrisy. Some other
landscape, that I don't care about, so it can be developed as a
windfarm, might be somebody else's dreamland. I know this and struggle
to get to grips with it.
But there is a lot of hypocritical talk bandied about when it comes to
wind turbines. Let us compare them to automobiles for a moment.
Automobiles come out way, way, on top when it comes to bird kills and
noise - both strenuously put forward as objections to windfarms. We are
talking orders of magnitude here. I have stood under, and downwind of
large windfarms. Yes they make noise, but I have also stood in my
parents' garden at midnight - they are half a mile from the M42 and 2
miles from Birmingham International Airport. Even at that time of
night, there is a constant roar of other peoples' convenience going on.
It is at least ten times louder than any wind turbines I have heard.
But does anybody object? No - the automobile is king.
And the view being spoiled by manmade developments? The Cambrian
Mountains is home to a much more extensive form of these - conifer
plantations - sometimes planted to heights where they grow into
stunted forms. When these uplands were planted, who complained about
Nantycagl, contrails and conifers - within the area proposed for
it is the case, though, that certain landscapes are just too important
for any further development whatsoever. There is an immense spiritual
value in wildernesses: there is economic value in them too as they
attract visitors who spend in the area during their stay. Many - myself
included - would be horrified at the
idea of any form of industrial sprawl being inflicted upon the wilds
of, for example, Assynt. Some places are just too obviously beautiful.
But in the need to replace cheap abundant oil, where does one draw the
line? It is not a straightforward question.
is a Google satellite image of the Dyfi area of Mid-Wales, zoomed so
that the scale-bar is 5km. The Nant-y-moch area is towards the bottom,
just R of centre.
here is an image - at the same scale
- of one of the Tar-sands workings alongside the Athabasca River in
Alberta, Canada. Note that the screen display for Google satellite
images is slightly different for Canada and the UK, so I took
screengrabs of both and reduced the size of the Canadian one until the
scale-bars (bottom L) were identical in length. Try it yourself!
an area equivalent to the distance from Aberystwyth to
Llangurig, from Tonfanau to Cemmaes, this is in
somebody else's backyard.
So, in the context of Peak Oil and the requirement to find
alternatives, should people who campaign against windfarms also
campaign against tar-sands extraction whilst phasing out their direct
usage of oil (e.g. cars) as an energy-source? Or is it OK so long as it
spoil your view?