The Virtue of Waste

I’m currently reading The Bottomless Well by Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills. There’s a chapter titled “The Virtue of Waste” that has really enriched my perspective on energy use and energy waste. One of the main ideas of the book, perhaps the main idea, is that raw fuel is not what’s most valuable in the “energy equation”; instead, it’s energetic order. Energetic order can only be achieved through simultaneous energy waste. When we burn raw fuel or split uranium atoms to generate electricity, only 1 to 5 percent of the thermal energy locked up in the fossil fuel or uranium makes it to the end-user. The rest is used in the energy purification process itself, and in the release of wasted heat.

While many would consider this completely wasteful and inefficient, consider the alternative scenario: getting rid of anything and everything that relies on electricity, gasoline, or cooking gas, and substituting it with manual labor or biomass. I don’t think most, if any of us would make that trade; simply put, people would think you’re still living in the 1700s.

Energy is everywhere. Energetic order is scarce.

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