REVIEW: The Bottomless Well by Peter W. Huber & Mark P. Mills

REVIEW SUMMARY: Non-fiction : a very interesting book describing the facts of energy usage in the United States that challenges a lot of conventional thinking.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Huber and Mills are out to challenge the pundits, policy-makers, and environmentalists as they use the history of energy consumption to predict the future – and the future is bright! While others have constantly predicted the end of oil and a coming crisis, the facts say otherwise.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Excellent analysis, facts of the past, and predictions for the future.

CONS: Last chapter is out of place, belongs in another book.

BOTTOM LINE: Great read for anybody who wants to challenge their own thinking about energy and its use not only today, but in the future.

This book surprised the heck out of me – it was recommended so I took a chance and was very surprised. I post it here because I was facinated by some of the recommendations and predictions for the immediate future regarding the changes to automobiles and traditional power sources (like oil and gas heat, for example.) I know not everybody on this list likes to read non-fiction books, but if you do, I think you’ll enjoy this one – even if you don’t agree with everything the authors came up with.


Let me quote a few facts from the book – I’m doing this from memory, so the mistakes are likely all mine. Every time we increase the efficiency of an item, the total energy used by that item goes up. Sound contradictory? When we made the internal combustion engine more efficient and cheaper, it became affordable by lots more people, and as a result, total overall usage goes up. The same was true for the light bulb – Edison’s initial versions were terribly inefficient, but every advancement lowered the price and so the light bulb got used in hundreds of new places. That fact has been repeated many times – computers are far more efficient than the ENIAC was (it was a terrible power hog – drawing 150kW of power!) however the sheer number of them in American households causes them to overall draw many times that in power from the grid. The same is true for microwaves, lasers, and many other important products. Looking ahead, the same will be true for LED-based lights – as great as they are and as efficient as they are, the low cost will mean we will see them everywhere and as a result, the total amount of electricity spent driving them will go up (although their 1Whr usage means they are super efficient.) Increases in efficiency are good, but don’t assume that doubling the efficiency of something will cause a net decline in overall nationwide energy usage on that item.

Another fact – North America is a carbon sink, not a source, for the world’s carbon levels. The reasons for this are varied, but the largest impact is simply on the massive reforestation of the United States – while exact figures aren’t available, it seems the US is on the verge of having as much forest land in the next few years as it had when the country was settled by the Pilgrims. People need fewer and fewer physical acres to support them, thus more of the land is turned back into some form of forest. This is largely because our energy needs are met by pulling things out of the ground (coal or oil) or atoms (nuclear) and we no longer rely on the land directly. But it is having a great side effect of more forested land.

And finally – the prediction that impressed me the most was that the future of cars in the US will be Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (or PHEV.) This idea is so smart, and so simple, I can’t believe it isn’t more widely known. Hybrid cars (those with both a gasoline engine and electric motors) will become the common vehicle for the future. But different from the hybrids today, these vehicles will use electric motors to drive the wheels all the time (one at each wheel) and no longer contain a traditional drive train. When the battery is low, the engine will come on and generate electricity, but not drive the wheels directly. Not only does this reduce a lot of weight from the car, it also increases its reliability – electric motors and solid state components are significantly more reliable than the mechanical solutions we have today. And also different from today – these cars will support being plugged in at night charging the battery from the power grid rather than from the engine. Why? Because the power from the grid is one-third the cost of charging from the gasoline engine, and the power plants we have in place are more efficient and less polluting than the cars engine as well (especially if the power is from a nuclear plant, but even coal plants put less into the atmosphere than cars do.) Batteries need to get to the point where they can provide you with 50 or 100 mile range (today they cant’) but that’s coming – there are people working hard on Lithium batteries for cars that would give you this.

Like I said, I had a great time reading it and thinking about the ideas they presented, even if I find some of them to be different from my own. It was a fun read if you’re looking for an intelligent discussion.

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Bottomless Well by Peter W. Huber & Mark P. Mills”

  1. Anyone who’s interested in the subject and wants to read something non-fiction that reads like sci-fi, I recommend The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century by James Howard Kunstler.

    It was without a doubt one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read and great research for anyone plotting a post-apocalyptic (i.e. post-oil) story.

  2. This is not a blog for non-fiction, non-SF, but, if you want to set your stories in a realistic universe where the economics actually work, please read HUMAN ACTION by Ludwig van Mises.

    Likewise, if you are a reader who finds scenes set in post-apocalypse, post-oil, super-polluted and over-populated worlds to be slightly hard to believe, you might want to read Julian Simon’s THE ULTIMATE RESOURCE. Without going into the details, his basic argument is that human ingenuity more than compensates for the reduction in supply of any resource, once that resource actually gets rare enough to make it economical for the free market to look for alternatives.

    Simon argues that predictions must be dynamic rather than static, based on conditions as will arise at the time predicted, not conditions are they are now projected into the future. All arguments along the lines of Malthus are static.

    We are not currently suffering from a shortage of whale oil, for example, even though whale oil once was, not long ago, used everywhere in lamps. A simple calculation made in 1880 about the world population in 2006 would have “proved” decisively that we are suffering an unthinkable whale oil shortage, no doubt with countless populations freezing in the dark during winter due to a lack of whale oil.

    And if you want to read about something as strange as any science fiction story, read about Julian Simon’s wager with doom-sayer Paul Erlich, author of THE POPULATION BOMB, who predicted in 1970 that England would cease to exist, due to overpopulation by 1985.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wager_between_Julian_Simon_and_Paul_Ehrlich

    Julian Simon is still regarded as a perilous optimist, and Erlich as a wise and sober thinker, despite that the horrific predictions of Erlich were not just wrong, but absurdly wrong.

    Here’s a quote:

    All of Ehrlich’s grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ’80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity.” In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems,” Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.

    And another quote:

    Simon always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they’d been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days “experts” spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.

  3. Alittle technical with graphs and when it parses some concepts but its provocative claims got me to hang in there. Energy fuel power etc. Suggests that wind mills, sollar power and hydroelectric energy cant meet our future demands. It might suplement.The intensity with which we incresingly use power cant be sustained by this flower power. Lasic laser surgery, microwave industrial processes, electrons (electricity fr those of you in rio linda) running computers and the internet, etching silicon chips, are very very energy intensive uses of energy. They take tons of energy/power to accomplish. Similar to space launches which goble tons of chemical energy to put something in orbit. A launch is not very efficient but what one can do with the resultant orbiting satelite pay dividens few people would ever give up. Weather forcasting, military victory, navigation, satellite TV, communications, monitor sunamis, cell phones, etc. Dables a little with land use. If todays population used horses for transportation how many horses would we need? (Imagine the health impact of the streets full of horse exhaust. One huge open sewer.)Assuming each horse ate oats how many acres would be needed to sustain them with oats?. If we all went back to riding bycycles “to save the planet” we would still need fuel. Pedal power takes calories. To grow all that granola, assuming the riders ate granola, figures are given for how much land would be needed grow the grains to support these bycycle riders? Plowing under acres of forestland etc. to suport clean bicycles. One acre of oil wells takes a lot less space.

  4. “If we all went back to riding bycycles “to save the planet” we would still need fuel. Pedal power takes calories. To grow all that granola, assuming the riders ate granola”

    Pfff. Yes, because we SUV driving countries don’t over consume calories as it is.

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