Energonomics: On the Storage and Distribution of Solar Energy

12 February 2007 at 7:02 pm Leave a comment

On my commute into work, I started listening to Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese, an environmental lawyer in Minnesota who became fascinated by the topic when the state investigated the environmental impact of its energy decisions.  She tells of how coal industry representatives intervened and tried to convince state decision makers that climate change was happening “in small ways we were all going to enjoy” (!) so they “should ignore what the vast majority of their colleagues around the world were saying about climate change” (8).  Happily, they “flatly rejected the industry’s notion that climate change would be limited  to climate improvements, adopting instead  the widely held consensus  that climage change is a grave threat” (9).

At one point early in the book she tells of the difference that coal made, speaking of the billions of years that “almost every life form on earth depended for its existence on energy fresh from the sun.”  She continues:

Like living solar collectors handily dispersed all over the planet, plants capture sunshine as it arrives and convert it into chemical energy that animals can eat. And plants don’t just convert energy, they store it over time–holding that energy within their cells until they decay, burn, or get eaten (or, in rare but important cases, are buried deep within the planet as a fossil fuel).  Animals eating plants take that stored energy into their bodies, where they not only store it in concentrated form but disperse it through space.  A flock of geese, a pod of whales, a herd of caribou–they are all, on some level, mobile battery-packs.  They gather solar energy that falls upon one patch of the planet and deliver it to another as they migrate; in this way, they make life possible for their predators even when, for example, the snow is thick and there is not a green leaf in sight.  Life on earth is, in short, a vast and sophisticated system for capturing, converting, storing, and moving solar energy, the evolutionary success of each species depending in significant part on how well it taps into that system. (4)

I don’t know what it is that I love about reading passages like this.  Maybe it’s the recognition of a fundamental feature of existence, which is why I think the concept of energonomics–of the management of energy–is crucial, especially at this critical point in the history of life on this planet.  It seems like there are more and more books like this one that speak of this “systems ecology” of energy flow.


Entry filed under: books, energonomics, science.

Complexity Economics Energenesis

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