Living on our energy income – The Ukiah Daily Journal

By on May 2, 2021 0

The traditional tax advice for a sustainable lifestyle is to preserve your capital and live off your interest income. The uplifting tale is of a person burning through a legacy, living beyond their income and eventually going bankrupt. This same basic idea can be applied to natural resources and energy systems.

Natural resources have a turnover rate and harvesting at a rate below this turnover rate is a prudent and conservative strategy, sustainable over the long term. Harvesting above this rate ultimately destroys the resource and the society it supports. The history of civilization is littered with societies that collapsed after depleting one or more of their critical natural resource systems. It can be food resources, water resources or energy resources.

All societies throughout history have depended on solar energy. Biological systems convert daily solar flux into carbohydrates or structural fibers, and the stored energy is used by humans in the form of crops, for food and fiber, and wood, for construction and heating. Food and fiber is usually an annual solar harvest, while wood can have centuries of solar harvest stored.

The air heated by the daily solar flux moves around the planet in the form of wind, used for nautical transport for more than 5,500 years, and for mechanical energy for more than 2,200 years. The water evaporated by the daily solar flow eventually falls as rain, and running water has been used for mechanical energy for over 2,400 years.

Fossil fuels are solar energy stored as decomposed organic matter, which was deposited long ago, buried by subsequent sedimentation, and transformed by geothermal pressure and heat. Oil and natural gas were deposited between 65 and 540 million years ago, and coal was deposited 100 to 400 million years ago. Large-scale commercial extraction and use of fossil fuels began about 300 years ago.

Coal was the first to be developed and fueled the rise of the British Empire, giving their navy greater speed and maneuverability than wind fleets. Coal currently provides 27% of the world’s energy. With the lowest hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of the three fossil fuels, it is inefficient and generates more greenhouse gases per unit of energy. Consequently, it loses its global economic competitiveness. At current consumption rates, there are 133 years of global coal reserves left, but it is likely that much of that will remain in the ground.

The global development of petroleum began about 200 years ago. With a higher hydrogen to carbon ratio than coal, it is a more efficient and versatile fuel as refined transportation fuels. The abundant American reserves allowed us to supplant the British Empire after World War II. Oil now provides 33% of the world’s energy. However, the world’s oil reserves are smaller than the coal reserves, and the depletion of existing fields has exceeded the discovery of new fields for half a century. US production peaked in 1972, and most of the world’s other major oil fields have peaked since then. Shell Oil recently announced that its entire reserve will be depleted by 2040. Global reserves could support current consumption for another 42 years, but all of this cannot be recovered economically.

Natural gas is usually found with petroleum and began its commercial development at the same time. Natural gas lighting has revolutionized civilization for around 200 years. It has the highest hydrogen-to-carbon ratio of the three fossil fuels and has been touted as a greener “bridge” fuel. But natural gas is mainly methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than CO2 in the short term. Because it cannot be refined into as many products as petroleum, it is not as versatile. The hydraulic fracturing boom of the past decade has boosted natural gas production, but these wells are quickly depleting, making them a relatively expensive source of energy. Reserves can support current consumption rates for another 52 years.

Like the spendthrift who burns their capital, humanity has grown our economy by burning off our rapidly dwindling supplies of stored fossil solar energy. Regardless of climate concerns, to avoid an economic collapse of an unprecedented proportion, we must evolve our economy towards a lifetime of our solar income in the coming decades, before completely depleting our stored fossil solar capital. Fortunately, our solar revenues are enormous: 10,000 times our current global energy consumption. Does humanity have the wisdom and commitment to make such a change?

Crispin B. Hollinshead lives in Ukiah. This article and previous articles can be found at

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