Monday 25 February 2013

Muse, Energy & High Speed Train Lines

If you bought the last Muse album 'The 2nd Law' you may have noticed the recurring theme of energy deficiency and the sustainability of our current way of life that runs deeply through most of the tracks.

The title of the album refers to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which states that 'the entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve toward thermodynamic equilibrium- the state of maximum entropy. Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the 2nd kind are impossible.'

This is put into an economic context in the track 'Unsustainable' which says:
''All natural and technological processes proceed in such a way that the availability of the remaining energy decreases. In all energy exchanges, if no energy enters or leaves an isolated system, the entropy of that system increases. Energy continuously flows from being concentrated to being dispersed, spread out, wasted, and useless. New energy cannot be created and high-grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is unsustainable.'' 

The main flaw in this argument is calling the global economy an isolated system. We receive a certain amount of energy from the sun and other renewable sources that is potentially unlimited (on our time frame anyway) also some technological processes/progression may lead to great reductions in energy demand and may also (nuclear fission?) solve many of our long term energy problems.

The trouble at present is that these renewable sources account for an incredibly small percentage of the total energy used, and most energy consumed is still derived from the burning of fossil fuels, which are becoming increasingly scarce, difficult to source, and expensive.

The world struggles to feed 7bn people under current conditions. How will we fare decades down the line when oil is in much shorter supply, and probably vastly more expensive than it is now?
New oil drilling techniques such as fracking may provide us with a temporary respite, but in the end we will consume these supplies as well (probably at an ever increasing rate) and be left with renewables alone. Will we be able to run our agricultural and manufacturing industries on solar power and other renewables? It certainly wouldn't be possible at the moment.

Tullett Prebon recently published a report called 'Perfect Storm'. In this paper they describe the global economy as a surplus energy equation, i.e. the more energy/resources left over after providing the essentials of life (food/water/shelter) the higher the potential GDP can be. They argue that the massive GDP growth we have seen over the past 200 years has been made possible because of access to cheap and abundant energy, mainly from fossil fuels. They argue this point fantastically well with graphs/diagrams etc and I recommend reading their explanation. The report is 84 pages long but they only really start talking about the energy side of things on page 59 so I advise you start reading there. Here is the link.

Economists in the UK are currently scratching their heads about why our employment levels have increased dramatically since nadir of the credit crunch, yet GDP levels remain stagnant. A continuing lack of credit will not be helping this, but also I wonder if we might have reached a tipping point in terms of our surplus energy equation? Is it possible to grow in the face of rapidly rising oil prices?

One thing is for certain, countries with the best energy policies going forward will be the most competitive on the global scene in the future. Sourcing cheap reliable energy should be the corner stone of UK government policy. With this in mind I find the latest idea of squandering billions on a high speed train line (HS2) preposterous.


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