Nature provides the energy; we decide how to use it
Our planet has but two sustainable sources of energy; the sun, which is expected to continue
burning for another 5 billion years; and the core beneath our feet, which is expect to exhaust itself
due to radioactive decay in a similar timeframe. The forms that the sun’s energy are available to us
are varied; from the more immediate solar thermal, wind and photosynthesis, to the long-term
forms stored as fossil fuels.
The planet has processed this energy for more than 4 billion years, using complex physics,
chemistry and biology that we have been challenged to understand and emulate. These
processes have been responsible for shaping the landscapes we have learnt to enjoy and exploit
as well as managing the natural resources we need to survive. We live on an amazingly complex
planet that can handle enormous quantities of energy from both these sources and still maintain a
Our hunger for energy seems insatiable; when you consider that in 1820 world energy
consumption was of the order of 21 ExaJoules per annum, by 2010 it had risen almost 40-fold to
800 ExaJoules per annum and while the growth rate has slowed in recent years it is projected to
exceed 1,200 ExaJoules per annum
by 2035. This growth in consumption has coincided with our
discovery of some of natures hidden treasures, we cannot sustain this growth without an
imaginative use of the available sources of energy.
Wood is probably the oldest of natures products to be used for energy. Charcoal was once the
most important of all wood products, dating back to 30,000BC. The Egyptians used charcoal to
smelt ores as far back as 3,750BC due to the high temperatures that can be achieved. However,
the large scale deforestation resulting from our ever growing need for energy and building material
has already seen civilisations shrink or disappear.
What is referred to as the Age of Oil dates back to the production of Kerosene from coal in 1854,
followed by the discovery of crude oil in 1859. We realised that these fossil fuels, the by-product
of decomposition of plant and animal materials, provided an abundant source of energy. Oil
exploration and production became the bywords for wealth and development. Back in the 60s we
were all convinced that if we could just find some oil off our coast that we would become a
wealthy nation, just like the Texans or the Arab states.
Natural Gas was used by Chinese as early as 500BC, yet In the early days of oil production
it was burned off as it was considered prohibitively expensive to pipe to potential consumers. Now most
of the developed world benefits from a complex infrastructure which distributes it to our cities,
helping to reduce the pollution associated with most other fossil fuels.
But, this Black Gold and its by-products has a small, but not insignificant problem; it takes 300 to
400 years to produce and while we have become increasing more ingenious at ways of
discovering and extracting it, we can expect to have serious depletion of the reserves that nature
stockpiled by 2040. Even focusing on shale gas; which has resulted in the US becoming the
largest gas producer on the planet, only postpones this inevitability.
Thankfully nature provides us with so many examples of how energy can be consumed in a
sustainable way; the snowdrop and daffodil bulbs whose flowers we long to see every spring are
akin to permanently recharging batteries, converting the suns energy by photosynthesis and
reproducing in the process. The weather we so often bemoan is at its simplest an important large
scale distillation process that separates the water essential to our survival from the earth’s
surface, fuelled by our sun’s energy. The enormous energies generated by this process enable us
to harness mechanical and electrical energy in the form of wind, wave, tidal and hydro generation.
Biogas, a by-product of everyday digestion by bacteria of plant and animal matter (including
human), can be piped into our existing infrastructure and fuel our cities. Historically we have
dumped these materials, causing unnecessary widespread pollution as a consequence,
destroying the most valuable natural commodities on the planet; air and water.
Then there is the heat beneath our feet; the geothermal energy that results from both the short-
term recharging of the upper levels of the earth’s crust by solar activity, to the deep energies
fuelled by the radioactive decay of the earth’s core. These energies are some of the most
untapped sources on our planet, with the ability to heat, cool and generate electricity.
So our challenge is to study nature, move on from the age of oil and aim to develop more e
efficient and sustainable processes. We also need to be more aware of conservation, to focus on the
elimination of waste and learn to emulate natures understanding of recycling excess. When we
consider that in Ireland we dump up to to 50% of the energy used in most of our electrical
generation in the form of waste heat, rather than use basic planning and the technical know-how
available to conserve and recycle this excess energy.
Energy security and the sustainable use of our planet’s resources are key issues that have a wider
impact than most people can comprehend. We don’t lack the technology to ensure that we deliver
on both, but all the signs are that we lack the social, political and economic will to do so. We are
already seeing signs of the negative socio-economic impact of our failure to address these issues.
While we might use a variety of different labels to explain the impact of our policies, the historians
of tomorrow will distil the facts and name and shame us for our obvious failures; unless of course,
we start to refocus and address our responsibilities before it is too late. Ireland needs to realise
that it has an abundance of natural resource and can, therefore, become a world leader in the
development of sustainable energy technology. While other technologies will come and go, energy
technology will always be a part of our landscape.