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« Diary dates, modelling edition | Main | Kelly on the engineering challenge »

What is energy?

From the journal of the Economic Research Council comes this paper by John Constable of Renewable Energy Foundation fame. It considers the question of whether energy is just another factor input into the economy or whether it has a more fundamental role. The conclusion is that energy is different, the reason being found in the realms of thermodynamics:

...wealth is created by using energy to introduce improbable order into the world, in other words a reduction of entropy in one part of the system at the expense of a greater increase in entropy in another.

This is interesting when read in conjunction with the consideration of EROI the other day. If it is correct, the implications of deliberately increasing the cost of energy are likely be serious:

The policy-induced energy cost increases are a chronic presence not an acute shock; even
assuming that no further generating plant is constructed in the UK after meeting the 2020 renewable electricity target, the subsidy entitlements created up to that time will persist for another two decades. Indeed, the cumulative subsidy burden between 2002 and 2040 will amount to about £160 billion....It is therefore to be expected that non-energy input costs should now begin to show a steady upward trend as high energy costs work their way through, entailing steady reductions in standard of living as more of the wealth of the economy circulates within the capital of the energy sector and less in other sectors outside it.

It's interesting to consider that both of the parties that have a chance of forming the next government are going to go into the election with policies that implicitly require lower standards of living for decades to come. I'm reminded of this.

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Reader Comments (61)

Energy is simply the ability to do work.

Euan Mearns covered it in detail:-

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Public

"...wealth is created by using energy to introduce improbable order into the world, in other words a reduction of entropy in one part of the system at the expense of a greater increase in entropy in another."


Aug 26, 2014 at 10:17 AM | Registered CommenterMartin A

An excellent read. There is no doubt that low energy density renewable energy, being hugely inefficient and requiring lifetime subsidies, is destroying the wealth of this country at a rapid rate. Generating usable energy more inefficiently than previously (i.e reduced productivity) is pure destruction of wealth. Strangely, the renewable energy industry is proud of the huge numbers of very low productivity people employed producing a very small amount of very expensive renewable energy. Unsurprisingly, our incompetent political leaders love the increased employment in low productivity and highly subsidised jobs. You would have thought that all the political PPEs would understand this (but as somebody pointed out, maybe they skipped the E classes). One thing is certain, the politicians won't have the foggiest idea what all this thermodynamics, work, energy density and entropy stuff is all about and what relevance it has to the functioning of the economy and of our way of life.

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:18 AM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

What is energy? Energy is the length of a spacetime (energy-momentum) four-vector in the dimension of time. I would have thought that was obvious. :p :)

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterNick Milner

The fetishisation of energy by the renewables people is not news, but Constable's fundamental assumption seems wrong to me. How does, say, releasing and burning shale gas increase entropy? His assumptions regarding meeting the 2020 target and the cessation of the construction of generating plant are also unlikely to be realised.

But I suppose it's at least honest of him to make it plain that the greens intend us to suffer a steady and substantial fall in our standard of living, something the average UK voter will simply not tolerate.

Phil D

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhil D

It is difficult to realise how inept our politicians are when they cannot understand the simple science behind the current government energy debacle! The increase in fuel poverty and the long term damage to the UK economy which in turn, will have NO effect on the supposed threat to our planet, should be obvious. Any reduction (if any) in UK emissions will have no effect world wide. I think the word nugatory comes to mind or Sisyphean perhaps.

The only people happy about this are the deluded Green Taliban and the main beneficiary - Uncle Putin who I am sure will thank his Green Pawns someday.

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterCharmingQuark

A couple of thoughts.
1. The cost of something in dollars is a reasonable measure of the energy that has gone into producing and distributing that thing.
2. If the cost of energy is artificially increased all that means is that for the consumer to get his unit of energy he is now obliged to fund somebody somewhere getting their little unit as well. When we subsidize wind power with fossil fuel all we are doing is creating a situation in which everyone using gas is obliged to pay for someone else to use more fossil fuel to perform some (religious) activity such as constructing a windmill. In short subsidizing other energy sources is just forcing the compulsory diverting of energy away from what the consumer wants and into what some special interest group wants.

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterKeith L

All part of the decadent decline of Europe, following that of the Greek, Roman and British/French empires.

Would any energy intensive industry invest in Europe, with its Green obsessions at any cost?

With luck the rest of the world will be interested in European history, and we'll get jobs selling ice-creams to tourists, though the final irony would be global cooling killing the ice-cream industry, to the sound of thousands of wind turbines.

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:41 AM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

Our political class are clearly not fit for purpose in any way, shape or form. I have to wonder is any of them actually attended any lectures or tutorials. I could not go simply because I could not expect my parents to keep me for the two years until I cou;d go to University. But when I see the sheer stupidity of some MPs, I am less able to regret missing out. I made a good job of my working life using all I had learned at Grammar School Night School. I avoided the mistakes I see happening all around these days, we worked with slide rules and Log Tables and I never had a project fail!

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterDerek Buxton

Wealth is created by doing things more efficiently. Wealth is destroyed by doing things less efficiently. It is clear that the policy of successive governments has been the destruction of wealth. UKIP say that they want to stop destroying wealth. That will swing it for me.

Aug 26, 2014 at 10:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterH2O: the miracle molecule

The science in the argument against green energy policies, is well explained.
However, our politicians: Obama, Cameron, Merkel et al, are never briefed in such a manner. They only receive the formally approved line of the IPCC - via the railway engineer, and his underlings. The green doctrine has spread to scientific advisors, within all the government departments. Most are probably faithful followers of the CAGW religion, and those few sceptics within the ranks of government scientists keep quiet about their views. The only way matters might be reversed, is if the large majority of government economists become CAGW sceptics. Their advice really counts.

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Stroud

Energy by itself is not useful. It is controllable power delivery that is required.

There is plenty of energy in a thunderstorm but we can't control it. That is the real problem with renewables because we can't control the power they produce either in time or in space. The power requirements of a modern society are tuned to a daily routine. It is of no use whatsoever for wind farms to produce 10GW at 3am in the night if they fall to 100MW during the day. The energy produced by wind at night is essentially wasted energy.

The renewable lobby and DECC always quote GWh of Wind energy or the fraction of total generated energy. Only then does renewables reach say 15% of energy production last winter. They don't tell you that much of that energy was thrown away. What really matters is the fraction of Peak POWER delivered by wind and that averages only about 6% in the UK. Last Winter it reached 8%. This summer it dropped to 3%.

Power delivery is monitored every day here

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterClive Best

You youngsters may not be aware of Peter Chapman's attempt to create an energy theory of value in the 1970s, as described in his book 'Fuel's Paradise'. It foundered on the difficulties of trying to trace all the energy inputs to a product, and the realisation that sometimes other inputs are important too.

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris Hope

"The policy-induced energy cost increases are a chronic presence not an acute shock;"

Sheesh!! If you have to use pretentious stuff such as 'chronic presence' you're losing the plot. What I guess the author meant was that politically-enforced energy pricing is here with us now and will be for the next 30 years, at least. The only 'chronic' thing that will have any 'presence' out of this policy is the chronic illnesses of old people unable to afford heating and eating. Soon, they will no longer be 'present'.

I heartily endorse Philip Bratby's comment. It should be put in front of every MP.

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:20 AM | Registered CommenterHarry Passfield

if Energy is the ability to do work, it is all of a sudden obvious why the Left is so averse of it :)

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul the Nurse

Phil D

"How does, say, releasing and burning shale gas increase entropy?"

When the shale gas is in the ground it is more concentrated and sort of ordered than when it has been burned and is spread out throughout the atmosphere. Since it is more spread out and disordered than when it was in one place under the ground it has more entropy in the atmosphere.

You always need to use energy to decrease entropy so when the gas is compressed into liquid to put in tanks, it takes energy and the gas in the tanks has even less entropy than in the ground or the atmosphere.

Also, when the gas is burned, the CO2 and H2O that is produced has less entropy than the hydrocarbons it came from as energy stored in the gas was released when it was burned, increasing the entropy. Then plants use energy from the sun to turn the H2O and CO2 back into hydrocarbons, decreasing the entropy again.

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:39 AM | Unregistered Commenterboots

Cheap energy is prosperity.

Go to a third world nation - dig a well, pump the water for drinking, plant food crops, harvest, make clothes, build a hut, run a sewer. Have your the Greenies do all that by hand. Instructive.

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:44 AM | Unregistered Commentercedarhill

Next to a country's currency (money) energy is the best numeraire.

Wikipepia says, "A numeraire is a tradeable economic entity in terms of whose price the relative prices of all other tradeables are expressed. In a monetary economy, acting as the numéraire is one of the functions of money, to serve as a unit of account: to provide a common benchmark relative to which the worths of various goods and services are measured."

Energy pervades the entire GDP of a nation, so much so that it could be used as money. Which is why the oil crisis 40 years ago resulted in devaluation of money relative to energy.

Devaluation of money results from the inflation in the value of goods and since all goods contain energy, increase in the relative value of energy will cause devaluation of currencies.

The real value of labour will decline relative to the values of existing capital goods.The political consequences means that no government and no political party can survive long if current so-called "Green" policies regarding energy rationing succeeds in the short term.

Good article on Cfact:

Aug 26, 2014 at 11:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterFrederick Colbourne

"It's a rule of ecology," Kynes said, "that the young Master appears to understand quite well. The struggle between life elements is the struggle for the free energy of a system."
-Frank Herbert, Dune

Aug 26, 2014 at 12:05 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

The wondrous opportunities abound!

Plutus on stand-by to stop the blackouts

" A POWER firm with bright ideas about how to keep the lights on as coal-fired supplies are phased out is joining Aim......

The new company will generate revenues by selling this power to large energy supply companies during periods of peak demand.

As well as raising £800,000 to use as working capital, Plutus has already lined up financing to build its first couple of diesel generating sites to feed into the National Grid.

"We are facing a very real risk of blackouts. Demand for power continues to grow at a time when renewable capacity is not replacing fully the lost higher carbon capacity" - Executive chairman Charles Tatnall

They cost about £5million each and it is planning 10 sites in three years. Each site is only turned on for about 100 hours a year to limit the environmental impact.

Executive chairman Charles Tatnall said: "We are facing a very real risk of blackouts. Demand for power continues to grow at a time when renewable capacity is not replacing fully the lost higher carbon capacity.

"There is a huge demand for stand-by power generation and we are ready to provide it.

"We are paid to be on stand-by, so - in the event of a potential blackout or if we are getting near to a blackout - the Grid will contact us and we will turn on the diesels remotely........."

£5m outlay, max 100hrs/yr operation, I wonder just how much they are paid to be on stand-by?

Aug 26, 2014 at 12:05 PM | Registered CommenterGreen Sand

Harry Passfield. I don't find anything wrong with the statement

"The policy-induced energy cost increases are a chronic presence not an acute shock;"

He is saying the cost increases are gradual and persistent, not a shock to the system like the oil crisis was. He is an English graduate I believe, so you wouldn't expect him to write using words of one syllable that the politicos might understand.

Aug 26, 2014 at 12:12 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

...wealth is created by using energy to introduce improbable order into the world, in other words a reduction of entropy in one part of the system at the expense of a greater increase in entropy in another.

...improbable order... Wow!

This is a very interesting way to look at energy. Is this original with this guy?

Aug 26, 2014 at 1:06 PM | Registered Commenterjferguson

More priveleged glimpses of the bleeding obvious! The rest of the world are shaking their heads in disbelief at the stupidity of letting other countries control the core electricity supply.

Aug 26, 2014 at 1:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

When you go further down this path, you meet the concept of good and bad types of employment.
When pollies say that a new project will provide new jobs for x or y people, that is a gain only if said jobs are more socially desirable than the older ones from which they are taken. Of course, if the people were previously unemployed, this is most likely a social good. But what if they were working as medical nurses assisting in operations to save lives - does society gain by redirecting them to manual labour digging foundations for windmills?
Trouble is, there are no good ways to define socially desirable employment change.
It's similar with money. Is money from a new mineral discovery more socially valuable than money accumulated by investing in a stock market?
Again, is energy generated from nuclear fission more socially valuable than that from windmills? These are not concepts that can be analysed by money cost alone. There are externalities like personal preference, nostalgic attachment, national pride etc that are wickedly hard to quantify by traditional benefit/cost analysis.
That said, I'm not sure that expressions in terms of entropy, ehthalpy etc represent much of a gain. Just making the thermodynamics analogy does not make the method useful for comprehension, prediction, analysis, etc.
You tell me - is there a real gain here that I am missing?

Aug 26, 2014 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

If it costs us more, we have less of everything else.....I think I could work that out for myself.

Aug 26, 2014 at 1:57 PM | Unregistered Commenterfenbeagleblog

There is a solution to the problem; government was told of this nearly 4 years ago. It's to decentralise electrical energy generation to homes, about 5 big nukes' worth, bypassing the electricity grid controlled by the fascists** and their agents.

This will reduce electricity costs so much that windmill owners will become insolvent whilst making a hefty profit in the day for home-owners able to sell fuel cell and roof-mounted solar electricity as cheap and fast operation standby; the diesel STOR corporations will also go bankrupt.

The fascists were so greedy they never considered the possibility that their prey, domestic and small business consumers could, for a lower capital cost than unsubsidised nuclear, destroy the economics of renewables AND substantially reduce fossil fuel use!

**The group which paid for Brown and Balls to get high office, the return being PFI and the renewables' subsidies. The money ripped out of Midlands' industry, e.g. Transtec and Rover, was invested in windmills, solar cells and country estates. For evidence see the DTI reports on those insolvencies and Hansard, end Nov and early Dec 1997, questions to the CoE.

Aug 26, 2014 at 2:34 PM | Unregistered Commenterturnedoutnice

PS: the windmills have much lower life-time than claimed because the bearings fail. This is well known in the industry and they are VERY worried about it because it means no profit for the constructors:

This is why mass deployment of fuel cells is needed as an emergency programme, a bit like the aircraft construction programme in WWII: you can make and install them much faster than nuclear, and roof mounted solar is made practicable just at the time their price is falling rapidly so they can also be deployed at sufficient scale.

I envisage a drastic reduction of the windmills within 5 years, perhaps by two thirds of present installed capacity, leaving only those which can survive with no subsidies.

Aug 26, 2014 at 2:42 PM | Unregistered Commenterturnedoutnice

boots on Aug 26, 2014 at 11:39 AM

An excellent explanation!

Aug 26, 2014 at 2:58 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Just pause and look around. Unless you are in open countryside, all around you will have been manufactured and transported. We started off relying on energy for the basic requirements of life, such as heating, lighting and cooking. Today, we rely on it for almost everything.

Aug 26, 2014 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

Not all politicians believe in policy induced increases in energy costs.

Ukip e.g. doesn't - but then the others say you can't vote for them as they are " extremists" !

Aug 26, 2014 at 3:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterdave

The truly sad thing about rising energy costs is the way it affects different types of workers. Blue collar jobs in manufacturing, truck drivers, machine operators, agricultural workes and the like probably use much more energy per hour of labor hour than white collar workers. So the blue collar work force will see much more pressure on their hourly wages than the white collar work force though all will see a rise in their living expenses. Many blue collar jobs will become non-competitive in a global market. To paraphrase Mr. Cameron, could you describe the renewable energy mandates by the simple phrase, Green Energy Bleeds Blue.

Aug 26, 2014 at 3:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterSean

I like the metaphor of the ability to do work as a means of adding order to a situation.

Aug 26, 2014 at 4:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

jferguson: You ask, "This is a very interesting way to look at energy. Is this original with this guy?"

No, not at all. But as soon as you introduce thermodynamic concepts into a discussion like this, you lose about 95% of your possible audience. In the 1950s, C. P. Snow famously talked about the "two cultures", one of which understood Shakespeare and the other that understood the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and the yawning chasm between these cultures.

Aug 26, 2014 at 4:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterCurt

Alas, poor Entropy! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your Enthalpy now? Your Gibbs Free Energy? Your Helmholtz Free Energy? Your Radiation Entropy for Short Wave and Long Wave thermalisation and the difference thereof which creates life, the mathematical physics of Gaia wont to set the academic table on a roar, but not those occupied by the Alchemists of Climate

Aug 26, 2014 at 4:28 PM | Unregistered Commenterturnedoutnice

Phil D: It takes "work" to extract oil and gas from shale. Any "work" involves an increase in entropy, TdS.

Aug 26, 2014 at 4:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterJimbrock

He is saying the cost increases are gradual and persistent, not a shock to the system like the oil crisis was.

The frog being boiled is subject to a gradual and persistent change, too. The question is whether the electorate is any more capable of recognizing a 'gradual and persistent' degradation to its condition than is the amphibian.

Aug 26, 2014 at 4:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterJEM

JEM: I think that is precisely what JC is saying. The electorate won't notice until it is too late.

Aug 26, 2014 at 5:07 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

"Alas poor entropy....etc" Y'know, Alec, that was rather well done - and I see another side to you. Good for you.

Aug 26, 2014 at 5:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

Peter Huber wrote this great book on energy right before the shale gas boom:

Aug 26, 2014 at 5:43 PM | Unregistered CommenterCanman

I recommend this essay, referenced by Dcams on Richard North's blog the other day.
To quote a little it is eminently readable:
"…The release of energy from splitting a uranium atom turns out to be 2 million times greater than breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond in coal, oil or wood. Compared to all the forms of energy ever employed by humanity, nuclear power is off the scale. Wind has less than 1/10th the energy density of wood, wood half the density of coal and coal half the density of octane. Altogether they differ by a factor of about 50. Nuclear has 2 million times the energy density of gasoline. It is hard to fathom this in light of our previous experience. Yet our energy future largely depends on grasping the significance of this differential..."

If only our leaders could grasp that.

Aug 26, 2014 at 5:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterEforster


Thank you. For me, as a young teenager 60 years ago, E=mc^2 said it all.

Aug 26, 2014 at 7:33 PM | Unregistered Commentersimon abingdon


I don't know where he got those energy densities from. When I calculated them a few years ago I remember getting something like, compared to wind, water has 600 times the energy density (typical velocities), coal is a miilion times and uranium is a billion million times.

Aug 26, 2014 at 8:24 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

@Phillip Bratby

Thank you. For me, as a young teenager 60 years ago, E=mc^2 said it all.

Aug 26, 2014 at 8:56 PM | Unregistered Commentersimon abingdon

>Well, obviously we have to do something about the higher density energy sources that are unfairly priveleged, compared to renewables like solar and wind. They are suffering from unfair competition by the high density product, and we can't have that, now, can we? Don't you understand how bad that makes the windmills feel to be sitting there with their fellows out in the fields or in the lonely expanses of the ocean, not able to contribute while the solitary nuke plant chruns out high quality electricty 24/7? They need something to improve their self-esteem, to make them feel like they are wanted and appreciated.

Aug 26, 2014 at 9:40 PM | Unregistered Commenterrxc

Those elevated members of the Lords, whose namelessness here does not excuse their shamelessness, were and still are the most influential in pushing the decarbonisation agenda, and they already know that the subsidised renewable agenda is toxic to the viability of the entire national economy . Matt Ridley told them so in his maiden speech, or at least, indicated such as directly as he could in a polite maiden speech.

Aug 26, 2014 at 9:47 PM | Registered CommenterPharos

One other thought. To give you some idea of the relative amount of energy produced, if you take a typical nuclear fuel rod, and look at a piece about 1 foot long, it would roughtly the size of a (longish) pencil. This object, over its roughly 6 year life in a nuclear power plant, would produce heat at the rate of a very large wood-buring stove(about 12 Kw), continuously, for that time period. If you take it out and remove the fission products, replace the cladding, and put it back into another pencil-sized rod, it can do the same thing again, for 6 more years. You could continue this process about 15-20 times, depending on how clever you are, producing the same power of that large wood-burning stove, for about a century. The waste products from fission would be about twice the size as the original pencil. If you were really clever, you could probably use the fission products for another 500 years for low-level heat, as well. The heat output would just slowly decay away during that time.

Aug 26, 2014 at 9:48 PM | Unregistered Commenterrxc

How does, say, releasing and burning shale gas increase entropy?

Well simple really. CO2 is higher entropy than methane and oxygen.

Aug 27, 2014 at 1:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterLeo Smith

Thew idea that the government of the UK is committing economic suicide over a moronic ideology does not compute. Can you see Cameron loving the f* planet ?

Aug 27, 2014 at 3:09 AM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

...wealth is created by using energy to introduce improbable order into the world, in other words a reduction of entropy in one part of the system at the expense of a greater increase in entropy in another.

I am very impressed. It's not everyday that you see a political agent defining the very process of life as a desirably manageable extension of political power.

After all, what is the process of life except the consumption of relatively high entropy materials, the process itself being the metabolisation of said materials, and the excreta of much lower entropy materials? You feed on plant matter, which is converted energy from sunlight into highly organized cell architectures. You feed on muscle tissue, which itself was created by feeding on plant matter, which is converted energy from sunlight into highly organized cell architectures. You excrete omnidirectional infrared radiation, desalinated water, and a far more energetically reduced and entropically neutral fecalith.

That is the nature of life itself. (I feel like I should have a lightning and thunder effect after that sentence.)

I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise that the political class has so little education in mathematics and physics, especially when they are engaged in making broad spectrum decisions for all the inhabitants of a country, that they would effectively think that all facets of the existence of all things which live are there purview.

And people call me arrogant!

Aug 27, 2014 at 3:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander Williams

@philip, @harry

Nothing pretentious about 'chronic'. It means long-lasting, persistent. And is entirely appropriate here.

Can you think of a shorter, better word that says the same?

Aug 27, 2014 at 7:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterLatimer Alder

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