The Story of Energy
Energy is important. Without energy, we’d all be like this:
But what really is energy? The dictionary says it’s “the property of matter and radiation that is manifest as a capacity to perform work.” And it says “work” is “the exertion of force overcoming resistance or producing molecular change.” Putting that together, we get energy being “the property of matter and radiation that is manifest as a capacity to perform the exertion of force overcoming resistance or producing molecular change.”
That was pretty unfun, so for our purposes, let’s call energy “the thing that lets something do stuff.”
But the tricky thing about energy is the law of conservation of energy, which says that energy can’t be created or destroyed, only transferred or transformed from one form to another. And since every living thing needs energy in order to do stuff—and you can’t make your own energy—we’re all awkwardly left with no choice but to steal the energy we need from someone else.11← click these
Almost all of the energy used by the Earth’s living things got to us in the first place from the sun.2 The sun’s energy is what makes the wind blow and the rain fall and it’s what powers the Earth’s living things—the biosphere.
The joule is a common unit of energy—defined as the amount of energy it takes to apply a force of one newton through a distance of one meter3. While the sun’s joules can provide any animal with heat and light, the joules that power all of us from the inside enter the biosphere in the first place when the sun gives them to plants.
That’s how food is invented—plants know how to take the sun’s joules and turn them into food.
At that point, all hell breaks loose as everyone starts murdering everyone else so they can steal their joules.
We use “the food chain” as a cute euphemism for this murder/theft cycle, and we use the word “eating” to refer to “stealing someone else’s joules and also murdering them too.” A “predator” is a dick who always seems to want your joules over everyone else’s, and “prey” is just some sniveling nerd you particularly like to bully and steal lunch money from. Plants are the only innocent ones who actually follow the Golden Rule, but that’s just because they have the privilege of having the sun as their sugar daddy—and humans are the biosphere’s upsetting mafia boss who just takes what he wants from anyone he wants, whenever he wants. It’s not a great system, but it works.
And that all went on normally for a while, but in the last few hundred thousand years, humans started to realize something: while it was enjoyable to put new joules into your body, actually using those joules sucked. It’s much less fun to use a bunch of joules running fast or lifting something heavy than it is to just sit on a log pleasantly and hold onto those joules instead. So humans got clever and started to figure out ways to get joules outside their bodies to do work for them—by doing that, humans could have their joules and eat them too. Sometimes the methods would be dickish:
But joules aren’t only in living things. There are joules floating and swirling and zooming all around us, and by inventing the concept of technology, humans figured out ways to get use out of them. They made windmills that could steal some of the wind’s joules as it went by and convert them into mechanical energy to grind food. They built sailboats that would convert wind joules into kinetic boat energy they could control. Water absorbs the sun’s radiation joules and turns them into gravitational potential energy joules when it evaporates and then kinetic energy joules when it rains and slides down land, and humans saw the opportunity to snatch some of those up by creating water wheels or dams.
But the most exciting joule-stealing technology humans came up with was figuring out how to burn something. With wind or water, you can only capture moving joules as they go by—but when you burn something, you can take an object that has been soaking up joules for years and release them all at once. A joule explosion.
They called this explosion fire, and because the joules that emerged were in the useful-to-humans formats of heat energy and light energy, burning things became a popular activity.
Taming a Dragon
We had learned to harness the joules of the wind and the water—to take those forces by the reins and make them ours—but when it came to the most joule-heavy force of all, fire, we couldn’t really figure out how to do anything with it other than hang out near it, cook some stuff, and generally benefit from its existence. Fire was a hectic dragon and no one had figured out how to grab its reins.
And then came the breakthrough. Steam.
Fire joules were hard to harness, but if you sent them into water, they’d get the water molecules to increasingly freak out and bounce around until finally those molecules would fully panic and start flying off the surface, evaporating upwards with the force of the raging fire below. You’d have successfully converted the thermal energy joules of the fire—which we didn’t know how to directly harness—into a powerful jet of steam we could control.
With the muscle of steam in their toolkit, the inventors of the 18th century burst into innovation. They had some serious joules to work with now, which opened worlds of previously-unthinkable possibility. Breakthroughs led to more breakthroughs, and at the turn of the 19th century, the progress culminated in an invention that’s often called the most impactful turning point in human history: the steam engine.
Picture your tea kettle when it gets all angry at you and starts whistling. Now imagine that instead of the steam spewing out through the nozzle, you connected the nozzle to a tube, which directs the bursting steam into an empty cylinder and then finally releases it. When the steam goes into and then out of the cylinder, it shoves a “piston” inside the cylinder on a powerful back-and-forth motion. That’s (a dramatic oversimplification of) how a steam engine works. Depending on the vehicle, the back-and-forth motion of the piston can do different things. In the example of a locomotive, the piston is attached to a rod whose back-and-forth motion turns the wheels:2
Using the steam engine, humanity upgraded from sailboats to steamships and from animal-drawn carts to locomotives.4 Inside factories, people put steam to work too, swapping out their water wheels for much more effective steam-powered wheels.
With the new ability to transport many more goods and materials, much farther away, much more quickly, and to far more efficient factories, the Industrial Revolution ignited in full force. People say the Industrial Revolution was powered by steam, but steam was just the middleman—after hundreds of thousands of years of existing as passive benefactors of combustion, we had tamed the dragon, and the Industrial Revolution was powered by fire.
The one thing about having made fire our bitch is that we now wanted to burn a lot more things than we ever had before. For most of human history, when people wanted to burn something, they just went and found some wood. Easy. Except now it was the 19th century, and with our new appetite to burn, wood wouldn’t cut it anymore.
We knew there were other things we could burn—in Britain, they would often supplement wood by burning a black rocky substance they found on their shores. They called it coal.
The problem is that unlike wood, most of the coal in Britain wasn’t just sitting conveniently on land—it was underground. When the Industrial Revolution got going, the British started digging—they were gonna need a lot of coal. As the revolution spread through Europe and to North America, Europeans and Americans started digging too—they also were gonna need a lot of coal.
As everyone dug, they started finding other things too. They found pockets of burnable air we call natural gas and underground lakes of thick, black burnable liquid we call crude oil. It turns out that this whole time, humans had been walking around with a vast untapped treasure of tightly packed, burnable joules right underneath them. It was like a dog digging in the woods to bury a bone and uncovering an underground cave full of pulled pork.
And what does a dog do who finds a cave of pulled pork? Does he pause to think cautiously about how to proceed or consider consequences for his health? No—he eats the shit out of it. Mindlessly, at full speed.
And throughout the 19th century, coal mines and oil rigs popped up everywhere. Burning this new treasure of joules made economies soar and the incentive to innovate soared along with them—and new, fantastic technologies were born.
Like steam engine technology, the credit for the electricity revolution is owed to a collaboration of dozens of innovators spanning centuries, but it was in the 1880s that it all finally came together. In what is still probably the most significant technological shift of all time, electricity allowed the raucous power of burning to be converted into a highly tame and remarkably versatile form of energy called electrical energy. With steam as a key middleman, all those spastic combustion joules could now be sent into an organized grid of wires, transferred long distances, and delivered into residential and commercial buildings where it would wait patiently in an outlet ready to be discharged at the user’s convenience.5At that point, the now electrical joules could be converted into almost any kind of energy—they could boil water, freeze ice, light up the room, or make a phone call. If steam had tamed the dragon, electricity had turned the dragon into a magical butler, forever at our service. And for the first time in human history, the power was on.
Right around the time this was happening, another revolution was underway. Fire was now powering our ships, our trains, our factories, and even the new wizardry of electricity, but individual transportation was still powered by hay like it was 1775—and late 19th century humanity knew we could do better. Biological horses got super upset if you tried to power them by fire, so again, humanity got innovating, and a couple decades later, there were big, metal horses everywhere with engine cylinders full of fire.
As coal, oil, and natural gas motivated unprecedented innovation, the resulting waves of new technologies created an unprecedented need to burn stuff—which motivated the diggers. Companies that focused on digging, sucking, and siphoning up more and more of our underground joule treasure, like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, became the world’s biggest corporate empires. It was a new world, powered by an endless cave of pulled pork, being gorged upon by the world’s happiest dog…
Flash forward to the present day.
Burning our bounty of underground joule-packed fuel to power our world is now an innovation more than two centuries old—but in 2015, it’s still the main way humans get their power:3
That’s the thing about dogs—if given something delicious, they tend to eat until the food runs out or they get sick, whichever comes first, and there aren’t too many other factors in play. The modern energy debate essentially boils down to whether it’s okay that the dog is still fully enjoying himself in the cave or whether it’s not because he might be making himself dangerously sick or risk running out of pulled pork—which would be a problem, because he has grown increasingly large since finding the cave, and he has no way outside the cave of feeding his now-immense appetite.
As you might have noticed, there are a lot of people who have a lot of opinions for a lot of reasons saying a lot of things about this situation. And some are saying real things, but a large portion of them either don’t especially know what they’re talking about or they have some ulterior motive for saying what they’re saying. This makes an already complex, murky, multi-faceted topic even more confusing.
So let’s lay out what we do know and try to clarify what the hell is really going on.
To begin with—what exactly are fossil fuels and where do they come from?
Fossil fuels are called fossil fuels because they’re the remains of ancient living things. “Ancient” in this case spans a wide range. The earliest organisms that contribute to today’s fossil fuels lived during the Precambrian Eon, before there were any plants and animals on land—the fossil organisms then would have been ocean algae. People often think fossil fuels are made of dinosaurs, but any dinosaurs in our gasoline are from the last couple hundred million years—the later stretch of the timespan—and only a small contributor. The largest portion of our fossil fuels comes from plants, animals, and algae that lived during the Carboniferous Period—a 50 million year period that ended about 300 million years ago and during which there were lots of huge, shallow swamps. The swamps were important because it made it more likely that a dead organism would be preserved. You don’t become a fossil fuel if you die in a normal place and decompose away. But by dying in a swamp and sinking to the bottom, Carboniferous organisms often ended up being quickly covered by sand and clay and were able to make it underground with their joules still intact.
After hundreds of millions of years, all those organisms were squashed under intense heat and pressure and became converted into joule-dense solid, liquid, or gas—coal, oil, and natural gas. Quick blue box brush-up:
Fossil Fuels Brush-Up
Coal, a black sedimentary rock that’s found in underground layers called coal beds, is the cheapest and most plentiful of the three and is used almost entirely for making electricity. It’s also the worst culprit for CO2 emissions, releasing about 30% more CO2 than the burning of oil and about double that of natural gas when generating an equivalent amount of heat.4 The US is to coal as Saudi Arabia is to oil, possessing 22% of the world’s coal, the most of any nation. China, though, has become by far the world’s largest consumer of coal—over half of the coal burned in the world in recent years was burned in China.5
Oil, also known as crude oil or petroleum, is a gooey black liquid normally found in deep underground reservoirs. When crude oil is extracted, it heads to the refinery, where it’s separated, using different boiling points, into a bunch of different things. Here’s how a typical barrel of US oil was broken down in 2014:6
- 44.9% gas for cars
- 29.8% heating oil and diesel fuels
- 13.8% other products like wax, synthetic rubber, and plastics
- 9.5% jet fuel (kerosene)
- 2.0% asphalt
The United States is by far the biggest consumer of oil in the world, consuming over 20% of the world’s oil and about double the next biggest consumer. The US is also one of the three biggest oil producers in the world, alongside Saudi Arabia and Russia, who all produce roughly the same amount.6
Natural gas, which is formed when underground oil gets to a super-high temperature and vaporizes, is found in underground pockets, usually in the vicinity of oil reserves. The “cleanest” of the three fossil fuels, it’s the gas that fires up your stove or heats your apartment (if those aren’t electricity-powered or heated by oil), and it’s one of the major sources of electricity (it makes up about 20% of electricity in the US). Natural gas is on the rise and now makes up almost a quarter of the world’s energy. One of the reasons it’s on the rise is that scientists have found a new way of extracting natural gas from the Earth called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which uses a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to create cracks in natural gas-rich shale and force out the gas. This method has been hugely effective, but it’s also controversial because of some serious environmental concerns—this video explains it well.