The Bottomless Well by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills

With the temperature near 100 or above in large swaths of the country, with a war going on in the Middle East, and with gas prices steadily rising, energy is most definitely a timely subject these days. We don’t necessarily aim to be topical around here (intrigued as we are by out of the way subjects and what some might consider historical trivia) but it doesn’t hurt now and again to consider the issues of the day (and no I don’t mean Harry Potter).

So yes, The Bottomless Well (whose subtitle is The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy ) is highly relevant in today’s environment. But it is not one of those relentlessly practical books offering supposedly small and simple steps to address our energy problems. Neither does it present one of those gloom and doom scenarios where if we don’t take drastic action right now the world as we know it will end. No, what Bottomless Well really offers is a thought provoking look at the complicated world of “energy.” Its value lies not in its practicality but in its ability to provoking a different way of looking at the issue. It will stretch your mind with the latest technologies being developed and insights into those not yet developed. It will reveal why conventional wisdom on this important issue is so often wrong. It might not make you as confident about the future as the authors, but it might just give you more reason for hope.

I should state at the outset that I am not a math and science person by any means. I have taught myself limited functionality in these areas, but I certainly lack any real training or knowledge with which to judge the author’s technical, historical, or futuristic assertions. I will leave it up to the experts to question or critique the scientific, economic, and public policy assertions laid out within this fascinating work. But I can also assure you that you don’t need to be an expert to understand and appreciate it either. The authors write with a light hand and if you aren’t interested you can easily skip the graphs and charts and stick to the narrative.

To wet your whistle let me give a broad overview of a few of the big ideas. The authors set out to discuss what they call “Seven Great Energy Heresies.” These are ideas that the authors propose but which conventional wisdom would see as heretical.

1. The Cost of energy as we use it has less and less to do with the cost of fuel.
2. “Waste” is virtuous.
3. The more efficient are technology, the more energy we consume.
4. The competitive advantage in manufacturing is now swinging decisively back toward the United States.
5. Human demand for energy is insatiable.
6. The raw fuels are not running out.
7. America’s relentless pursuit of high-grade energy does not add chaos to the global environment, it restores order.

The waste is virtuous point is an interesting one. At its basic level waste is an inherent part of energy. Anyone who has walked around a farm knows that waste results from energy at its basic level (cows eating grass). But this is particularly true the higher level or order one wants to bring to the energy. Think about lasers. Lasers burn light to create light. This is not an efficient process because you have to dump in large amounts of energy in order to produce the super focused and powerful laser. A lot of energy is tossed aside to produce the beam. But Huber and Mills point out that this “waste” is necessary to achieve your goals. In a cosmic sense sunlight and lasers are the same thing – streams of photons. But you can’t make computer chips with sunlight and because of all of the amazing things one can do with lasers, computers, etc. this inefficient process is considered worthwhile. In other words, waste is virtuous.

The flip side of this is the issue of efficiency. You hear a great deal about energy efficiency these days. Environmentalists are always pushing for more efficient cars, appliances, etc. The government often offers tax credits for using these type of technologies or mandates the use of them. The idea is that the more efficient we are with our energy the less we will use. Huber and Mills turn this on its head as well.

Because the human appetite for energy is insatiable, energy efficiency doesn’t mean less use. In fact, it results in the opposite. When we can get more of something for the same cost we use more rather than less. With higher fuel efficiency in cars people drive more not less. When computers become ever more powerful while prices drop, more energy is consumed not less. Think about it. Our houses are more efficient than at any time in history but demand for power continues to grow. What we are seeking is highly order power.

Many environmentalist see this as a dangerous trend. They assume that demand for power means environmental degradation. But the authors also point out that this is not necessarily the case, because the choice is not between less energy or more energy but between competing sources of energy. The assumption is that power plants are polluting the earth with carbon dioxide and causing global warming. But what is often ignored is the fact that these more powerful and more order sources of energy also allow us to use less and less land to produce energy. Carbohydrate based energy (farming, burning wood, etc.) is much harsher on the environment because it requires so much land to produce energy. Thanks to our ability to build these power plants, North America has been repopulating the trees that former generations had cleared. Thus, the greening of North America has created a giant “carbon sink” that off-sets the carbon output of much of the world.

Another ironic point the authors make is that the green opposition to nuclear power has resulted in millions of tons of coal being burnt to produce power. Instead of accepting the reality of demand and agreeing to the most realistic power sources rather than the most ideal, environmentalists have gotten the worst fuel among the choices – coal. By opposing nuclear power the greens have forced the market to go to the cheaper but “dirtier” source. (The authors don’t discuss clean coal technologies)

The point of all of this isn’t that you will agree with every point the authors make. They lay out their arguments and provide data and documentation to back them up, but whether you agree with the their arguments or not, I think you will find the ideas challenging and thought provoking. In areas like this one where so much of the details are left to “experts” it is easy to let a comfortable but erroneous conventional wisdom set in. This leads to bad thinking and bad policy. Huber and Mills set out to blow up that conventional wisdom and force us to think in a new way about the world around us. And for that alone they deserve commendation. If the subject of energy and technology interests you at all, or if you are just curious about the future, I would highly recommend this book.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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