The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.

Author:Stroup, Richard
Position:Critical essay

The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy By Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills New York: Basic Books, 2005. Pp. 207. $26.00 cloth, $15.95 paperback.

Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills have written a powerful book about subtle concepts: heat, energy, power, and order. It is also an important book, not least because the United States and other industrial economies use enormous amounts of energy, with important consequences, intended and otherwise. Energy use is typically expressed in terms of heat, such as British thermal units (Btus). The U.S. economy uses roughly 100 quadrillion Btus (100 quads) of energy every year. The authors point out, however, that heat is not what we want. Rather, we want ordered energy.

"Heat is chaos" (p. 22), declare Huber and Mills. Heat can keep us warm, of course, but if we are clever, heat can also be harnessed to cool us, to transfer information through Internet pipelines, or to move us down the road. To move ourselves and our cargoes, we buy fuel to produce heat, and a vehicle's engine transforms the heat into useful energy to produce ordered, controlled power to move the vehicle to its destination and to slow or stop it. The energy used, however, is actually a small portion of the amount contained in the petroleum used to make the vehicle's fuel.

Of the 100 quads of energy used in the United States each year, 80-95 percent is used to purify, or to provide more order to, the energy itself before it produces light, information flows, transportation, and any other services. Running the machines and powering the processes that purify energy have been the focus of much of the inventiveness, ingenuity, and engineering that have built civilization. These efforts are also the focus of The Bottomless Well, whose authors tell a fascinating and important story.

In teaching us about energy, Huber and Mills make and support a number of counterintuitive, even heretical points. In the preface (pp. xxiv-xxv), they list the "seven great energy heresies we propound." Paraphrased, these heresies are:

  1. The cost of energy as we use it has less and less to do with the cost of fuel and depends more and more on the cost of the hardware used to refine and process the fuel. (The book's first chapter is "The Twilight of Fuel.")

  2. "Waste" is virtuous. We use most of our energy in refining energy and dump waste energy in the process. The more wasteful refining we do, the better...

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