Welcome to the LTA Windpower Founder’s Energy Blog

Welcome to this, the first posting on the “Founder’s Energy Blog” at LTA Windpower.

Introduction

This blog will initially be written by me, Nykolai Bilaniuk, the founder and CEO of the company. It is difficult to say how the blog will evolve over the long haul, but the intention is to present news and views on energy related issues. The aim is to maintain a high standard, so that claims are to have a sound scientific basis even when they do reflect my own biases. The  plan is to open the blog to questions and comments from visitors as soon as the necessary software can be put in place. Critical (but polite and constructive) feedback is more than welcome. I may have a Ph.D. in engineering and may be a registered P.Eng., but I know I too have a lot to learn, and blog visitors can contribute to my understanding of the world around me, including on the very complex and sometimes controversial topic of energy.

More than likely, the blog will put an accent on windpower since that is the business of our company, but the blog’s focus is not meant to be that narrow. Instead, it’s important to grasp the entire energy context, of which wind energy is only a small component. For that reason, I want to begin with a series of mini-lectures that discuss energy use in general.

Global Energy – Supply and Demand

The supply of energy used by human societies comes in several basic varieties. In the earliest paleolithic times, members of our genus used only food energy. The first great energy innovation was the harnessing of fire. Apparently the earliest signs of cooked food date from 1.9 million years ago, but fire was probably not controlled until 400,000 years ago, and its use did not become a regular human habit until 50,000 to 100,000 years ago [1]. Thus after food energy, the first energy source to be mastered was combustion of organic materials, and this sort of chemical energy remains an important component in our species’ “energy diet” today. Over the milennia, we improved the tools with which we burned plant matter, graduating from open fires to metal stoves. We also found more varied reasons for harnessing combustion. Initially, it was all about food preparation and heating, but later, after humans developed agriculture and sedentary civilizations, energy came to be used for all kinds of additional processes: firing ceramics, metallurgy, driving steam engines, and so on. The number of humans in the world and their per-capita energy consumption both increased dramatically. We could have denuded the planet of its trees long ago if we hadn’t also discovered another category of combustibles: fossil fuels. The first of these were peat and coal, and starting from about the 18th century also petroleum, then natural gas. Other than combustion, some of the few energy sources harnessed before modern times were the gravitational potential energy of descending water (i.e. hydropower) and the kinetic energy of moving masses of air (i.e. windpower). Both of these were widely used for milling grain and other early industrial processes, and wind was also used for transportation in sailing ships.

Electricity was known since ancient times, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that, thanks to the likes of James Clerc Maxwell, humans learned enough about electricity to take advantage of it in many useful ways. In and of itself, electricity is not an energy resource so much as a tool for transforming and transmitting energy. This is because our ability to store electricity is still very limited, so (with the small-scale exception of batteries) electricity must be produced exactly when needed. Electricity allowed us to make more convenient use of already known sources of energy (e.g. hydro and chemical combustion) and also opened up the possibility of harnessing new sources of energy (e.g. nuclear fission).

Per-capita energy use has increased greatly since the early paleolithic before the mastery of fire. A modern adult male leading a typical life in a warm environment requires on the order of 2500 kilocalories (10 megajoules or MJ) of food energy per day [2] or about 3.6 GJ/person/year, and a female slightly less. Thus a person’s body uses about as much energy as a 100 watt light bulb that is lit continuously. Let’s contrast food energy with actual per-capita energy consumption by society as a whole [3]: There is a range spanning 6.76 GJ/person/year in Bangladesh to 898 GJ/person/year in Qatar. China clocks in at 47.8 GJ/person/year and the United States at 327 GJ/person/year. Note that when population is taken into account, China and the USA produce comparable amounts of energy per year. The USA still consumes slightly more overall due to net imports, but China’s consumption is growing faster and will soon overtake the USA’s.

The total energy consumption for the entire world is around 500 exajoules/year at this time (1EJ = 10^18J). In 2011 the world population is projected to cross the 7 billion barrier [4], so the per capita energy consumption is around 71 GJ/person/year or 195 MJ/person/day. Looking at it another way, the average human’s energy footprint is 20 times the adult food intake. Energy demand (per capita and overall) is likely to continue to INCREASE over the coming years, decades, and centuries. The reasons are that the human population will continue to increase for at least a few generations and possibly longer, and because many poorer countries (notably the populous BRIC group – Brazil, Russia, India, China) have growing economies and will not accept being held back economically just to avoid a hypothesized Malthusian[5] catastrophe.

This last observation won’t sit well with people who hope for energy sustainability. Surely we need to decrease not only per capita energy consumption, but also total energy consumption? Yet as noted, we can safely assume the world WILL continue to increase its total energy consumption whether we like it or not. The solution is to look carefully at the global energy portfolio (both energy sources and applications) and try to decrease the use of those forms of energy that are most damaging to the planet while permitting and even encouraging the growth of those that are less troublesome.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calorie_food
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_energy_consumption_per_capita
[4] National Geographic, January 2011
[5] Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published in 1798, and is now in the public domain. It remains a classic in the study of the tension between population growth and resource depletion.

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