The myth of physical resource shortages – energy the key

OPINION: A common concern expressed these days is that the planet is going to run out of resources because they have been “used up” by us humans.

In my opinion, this simply can’t happen.  The planet has a fixed inventory of resources of all types and these can’t be destroyed or “used up” – but they can be made into a form which makes them awkward to use, i.e. not very available.

paddle-wheel-bucket-wheel-excavators-brown-coal-open-pit-miningSome are also widely dispersed and hard to collect, e.g. if you could inventory all the gold in New Zealand, I think you would be surprised at the large number you get – but most of it is dispersed so that techniques such as dredging have to be used have to be used to collect it.

And if availability is the problem then the solution is energy – and this is one very good reason we would wish to retain access to relatively cheap and easy to apply energy.

The most common resource shortage myth is probably water. Everyone knows the Middle East is short of fresh water and so are many parts of Africa.  A solution that has been “floated” – no pun intended – is to harness an iceberg from Antarctica and tow it north so the melted water can be used for fresh water supply.  However, to do this you need to use lots of energy in the towing operation.  The same applies to plants used to turn salt water into fresh water through desalination –now done in several places in the world so very feasible, but also energy intensive.

In other places in the world – and I have previously quoted NZ as an example – the problem is that we have lots of water but it tends to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – it takes energy to fix this problem either by storage and/or transportation. And I fear we have also made an “art form” of degrading the quality of much of our water so it is “energy” expensive to make it available or useable.

A common technique with metals is to recycle them. A large proportion of the steel we use is now recycled, most commonly using coking coal as the energy source.

Even concrete can be recycled although in this case the amount of energy needed is very high and  expensive.

With resources that are present in smaller and more dispersed quantities the energy budget for making “used” resources available can again be prohibitively high.  So the same technique of recycling is used to reduce the energy cost at the front end.  This applies to many of the fancy chemicals used in modern electronics.

The key to all of this – as it is to so many things – is the use of reasonably cheap energy.  If the energy gets too expensive then the cost of recycling or making resources available starts to get prohibitively expensive.  And that is why the fundamental debate is about energy – where “available” energy is going to come from in the future and how expensive it will be.

In that sense energy is the ultimate resource whose availability will determine the practical availability of many other resources.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.