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