The relative cost of energy

In December last year I wrote a post about a museum I visited in Streaky Bay, South Australia, where enthusiasts had brought together a couple of hundred machines that had sustained farming and grazing until the arrival of grid electricity. The Powerhouse Museum is a joy, at least to someone like me who is interested in history and how our society developed. I made the point in that essay that we take utterly for granted our capacity simply to flick a switch that ’empowers’ us to do something that relies on energy produced elsewhere. Our whole society in its present form is based on that assumption, which is why, from the beginning, I was apprehensive about expansive Green dreams to replace fossil fuels with alternative energies that are not reliable and are much more expensive.

A day or so I came across an essay on ‘Watts Up With That?’, the most visited climate change website in the world, with 36 million visits last year. The post was by a frequent and always readable correspondent, Willis Eschenbach, who seems to have had a most interesting life, aspects of which he draws on for his essays. He called this one ‘The Cost in Human Energy’, and I am adapting its message for my purposes.

He points out that the output of human energy, when adapted for a purpose like driving a generator through a bicycle wheel, works out at about 100 watts an hour. If you were physically fit and well supported with food and water, you could produce 1Kwh after a ten-hour stint on the bicycle contraption. We pay 18 cents for each kilowatt hour that we get from flicking a switch, which seems to be about fifty per cent more than Eschenbach’s payment in the USA. No matter — it is a small sum for us.

Eschenbach reminds us that past societies have used slaves to produce extra energy for human purposes, and that reducing the cost of energy is the basis for all the improvement in past human endeavour, the endeavour that has raised millions of people from poverty and ended slavery. If I look around our house, the 18 cents an hour we pay for electricity supports our lighting, the heating and cooling of our house, instant hot water, food preparation and storage, the cleaning of clothes, a full range of communication with the rest of the world, entertainment and security. In past ages, and to the extent possible through knowledge at the time, I would have needed an enormous staff to produce the same results.

That’s just our place. But everywhere we go in Australia has the same dependence. Our workplaces, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, universities, cinemas and old-age homes all rely on the same cheap energy. Our transport systems rely on cheap energy provided through other kinds of  fossil fuels. It is the cheapness and efficiency of energy today, relative to the bicycle-powered generator, that means that we live well. I am in favour of living well, and regard the advance of cheap energy as the basis for our present civilisation. To attack it without proper cause seems to me almost nutty, but I won’t go further down that path in this post.

Yet, with Eschenbach, I do want to insist that raising the price of energy, no matter how noble the reason, is as regressive a policy as you can imagine. Because cheap energy underpins everything, increasing its cost must raise the price of everything. Our carbon tax was ‘balanced’ by the Gillard Government through a one-off compensation to poorer families. That offset has gone, but energy prices keep going up, and the price of everything will go up in consequence. Below the tax threshold you pay no income tax at all, but there’s no threshold for energy prices: they are built into everything, and the poorest have the hardest task in coping. ‘Fuel poverty’ is now a real worry in the UK, and even in sunny Queensland houses are being removed from grid power because the occupants can’t pay their electricity bills.

Built into the whole attack on fossil fuels, the policy outcome of a belief that anthropogenic global warming is real, unprecedented and a catastrophic threat to humanity, is the happy assumption that we can easily move to a new form of energy creation, one that uses the energy of the wind and the sun, but not through nuclear options, and not through any more dams, thank you! I shake my head at these idealistic notions, which do not seem to me to be based on any understanding of how our society actually works, let alone of the impact of increased energy prices on the poor.

The government’s policy is to raise energy prices in order to force us to convert to solar and wind power. I think that’s a fair summary. I do not think it is in any way a fair policy, especially for a Labor government. Nor do I think it is in any sense necessary, but I’ve said that before.

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  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    What sources of power work? Well fossil fuel of course coal black and brown
    first then gas. That is for electricity but for transport we have oil in all its
    forms. Of course for electricity there is also hydro and nuclear.

    The environmentalist is against fossil fuel, warms the planet with CO2. Coal
    seam gas has less CO2 but fracking is dangerous! Hydro no CO2 but dams drown
    valleys, and so nuclear. No CO2 but the radiation, everyone will die definitely
    no good.

    The environmentalist is for wind power which only works some of the time plus
    many other problems. The intermittent nature means it cannot be relied on. This
    coupled with its cost prevents it replacing current systems. Solar has a large
    cost and only works when the Sun shines. So for the environmentalist only ineffectual
    energy sources are okay.

    I increasingly think our criticism of renewable is well understood by many
    in the environmental movement. Their hope is to degrade modern civilisation in
    order to merge with Gaia as Flannery puts it. That is they are misanthropic. The
    followers do not question they accept the pronouncements as a totem of their

    An example of the hard core Green it the
    following “Curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a
    radical and invasive approach” spoken by Paul Watson Sea Sheppard
    Conservation Society and one of the founders of Greenpeace.

  • […] Had they been like Prince Charles, what could they have achieved with the knowledge and technology at their disposal? When my grandfathers were in their prime, the one an underground miner in Broken Hill, the other a railway blacksmith in Sydney, Australia had emerged from the Great War with 65,000 dead soldiers. Conditions of life were not good, my father went to school without shoes for his first years, and uncertainty of employment was high. When my father was in his prime, Australia had just emerged from the Second World War, and postwar reconstruction was under way. It would take ten years before shortages were by and large a thing of the past. Neither generation knew anything about climate other than some years were better or worse than others. Had they been told that they shouldn’t have coal-fired power stations because of the effect on green house gas emissions they might have pointed out that electricity — and cheap electricity — would make life much easier for everyone. It has done, as I argued yesterday. […]

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