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
Basic Books -- 214pp -- $26
The Good Uses fundamental science as a basis to spin out broad societal lessons.
The Bad With their long-term perspective, the authors overlook current environmental woes.
The Bottom Line Performs a valuable service by placing human ingenuity at the center of the debate over energy.
With crude oil prices topping $50 a barrel and another expensive driving season ahead, it seems like a bad time for a book called The Bottomless Well, whose subtitle promises to explain "why we will never run out of energy." Authors Peter W. Huber and Mark P. Mills are up against headlines about OPEC throttling the world's oil supply, not to mention two other new books (with the same golden hue on their covers) whose scary messages are more in sync with the times: Out of Gas by David Goodstein and Beyond Oil by Kenneth S. Deffeyes.
Headlines be damned -- Huber and Mills don't flinch from their big idea for a moment. The authors argue that there are "unimaginably large" amounts of raw fuel available, from oil to coal to uranium, and no risk of running short. They dynamite the idea that improving efficiency can decrease energy consumption, arguing that when energy sources become more efficient and hence cheaper, people put them to new uses and total consumption rises. But that's O.K. with them, because they believe more energy consumption is evidence of society's progress in satisfying human needs. Finally, they argue that the answer to the bad side effects of energy use is to consume even more of it -- using it to scrub pollutants from power plants and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
In short, Huber and Mills really, really like energy. Their big-picture, long-term perspective is refreshing, although it probably won't satisfy people concerned about here-and-now consequences of energy use such as smog, dependence on Mideast oil, and $2 gasoline.
It would be easy to dismiss Huber and Mills as apologists for big energy suppliers. Mills was indirectly representing energy interests in 1999 -- as science adviser to the Greening Earth Society, an advocacy group supported by electricity producers and their fuel suppliers -- when he and Huber wrote a widely noted article in Forbes called "Dig More Coal -- The PCs Are Coming." Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory later concluded that the authors had exaggerated the energy consumption of information technology.
But The Bottomless Well is more than a polemic. The authors have legitimate technical credentials. Huber has a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to go with a Harvard University law degree. He's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's conservative Center for Legal Policy, a Forbes columnist, and an author of provocative books critical of junk science (Galileo's Revenge) and the mainstream environmental movement (Hard Green). Mills earned several patents while working as an engineer in chips and fiber optics. The two co-founded Digital Power Capital, a venture-capital firm in Washington that invests in companies that develop technology for semiconductors that handle high power.
In the spirit of like-minded author George Gilder, Huber and Mills spin broad societal themes out of fundamental science. The book has a rock-solid starting point: the laws of thermodynamics. The first one says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only altered in form. (Matter itself can be seen as a form of energy.) The second says that any closed system gradually decays toward disorder.
Most of the book consists of elaborating the logical consequences of those two laws. To the authors, the most important is that modern civilization depends -- inevitably -- on "waste." New technologies are all based on increasing the degree of order. Example: Lasers, which produce synchronized wavelengths of light, can repair vision and carry data over optical fibers. Lasers are useful precisely because their light is so highly ordered and purified. The process of generating pure laser light from plain-vanilla electricity isn't perfectly efficient: The total energy output is less than the total energy input, with the rest dissipated as waste heat. But that's fine. Physics tells us that if we want to create order in one place we must create disorder -- chaos, heat -- somewhere else. The authors argue that the true scarcity we face isn't the raw fuel, but the human ingenuity to create new forms of useful order, such as lasers.
As powerful as the authors' logic is, it becomes attenuated as the discussion moves away from the laws of thermodynamics and toward squishier subjects like politics. They may be right that the world isn't running out of raw fuel -- there's plenty of coal in the ground and deuterium in seawater. But it's nonetheless true that right at the moment, dependence on oil is forcing the West to funnel money to repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere. And even if they're right that sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will save the planet some day, glaciers are melting here and now. That said, The Bottomless Well performs a valuable service by putting human ingenuity at the center of the debate over energy.
By Peter Coy