All Life Needs Energy

Energy is crucial to life. Technology is based on using human muscle more efficiently and harnessing other sources of energy. The last hundred years has seen at least a ten-fold increase in energy use. Energy use is as unequal as the distribution of wealth. A rich North American uses 200 times as much as a poor person in the neo-colonial world. This huge expansion has been driven by using fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas. Research into other forms of energy production have been neglected.

Inequality of Energy Use Table 1

Country $ Per Person Per Year
Ethiopia 28
Pakistan 280
Britain 4700
USA 12800

The dependence on fossil fuels cannot last. Of all natural resources these are virtually the only ones that are not recyclable in any way. Once burnt they are gone. It took millions of years to produce these fuels and in a few hundred years they will run out. Capitalism is like a junkie hooked on oil, heedlessly destroying the future for a short-term profit kick.

The burning of these fuels also produces many pollutants which are only harmful to the environment, contributing to acid rain, global warming and gases that damage health and kill many life-forms.

Global Warming

Global warming is just that – global. The atmosphere acts as a ‘blanket’ keeping the earth some 40¡C warmer than it otherwise would be. This is vital to life. However, human activities have increased the amount of greenhouse gases that prevents heat from escaping off into space. The burning of fossil fuels in cars, power stations and factories in the USA or Western Europe creates problems right across the planet. While there is still some debate about the exact effect, most scientists estimate that the planet will heat up by between 1.5¡C and 4.5¡C on the average by the year 2100. This may not seem very much, but the effects could be devastating.

Already, the shape of the world’s seventh biggest continent, Antarctica, is already changing as a result of a 2.5¡C increase in temperatures over the past 40 years. Icebergs are breaking away and disintegrating, and flowers and plants are appearing for the first time in thousands of years in some areas. And if Antarctica and the Arctic icecaps should begin to melt, the effect would be felt across the whole planet. The most fertile land in Bangladesh would disappear under floods and dozens of small islands would be lost under higher levels of seawater. Future effects could include: a rise in sea level which would flood many areas; increased storms; a spread of deserts; and a loss of bio-diversity.

Some people in Britain think that global warming might mean longer summers and better holidays, but cities such as London, Amsterdam and Cardiff would be under water; climate instability could lead to increased storms. The latest research suggests that, as a result of global warming, the Gulf Stream, which keeps Western Europe hotter than other places on the same latitude – Canada, Russia, etc. – would be affected. Global warming would probably make Britain’s winters colder!

Acid Rain

The waste from burning fossil fuels includes sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides. These react in the atmosphere to form acids which fall as acid rain or as particles. The fallout does not respect national boundaries. Acid rain from Britain has dissolved the stonework on Manchester’s buildings (the worst affected city in Britain) and led to rain falling on Scottish lochs as acidic as lemon juice. It has spread across the North Sea, joining European pollution to damage forests and kill lakes in Norway, Germany and Switzerland. The Tory government have dragged their heels over agreeing to reduce emissions, giving them the name of “the dirty men of Europe”. The main proposals to reduce acid rain are to tackle the symptoms by fitting ‘scrubbers’ to the chimneys to remove the waste gases, or an expansion of nuclear power.

Nuclear Energy

The initial purpose of Nuclear power was not the generation of electricity but to produce material for nuclear weapons. In an attempt to give nuclear weapons an acceptable image, wild claims were made about unlimited free energy from nuclear power.

Present nuclear energy is produced by splitting large atoms, such as uranium, to release energy. This energy is used to produce heat to drive turbines to generate electricity. The process of splitting atoms, fission, also produces highly dangerous and long-lasting radioactive particles. At the start of the nuclear program there was virtually no research into the disposal of the poisonous products of nuclear energy and to this day there is no safe solution to this waste. France alone produces 10 tons of highly toxic plutonium a year. The world now has waste that will remain radioactive for thousands of years.

The future of the nuclear industry is very controversial. Many workers in the industry, when confronted with evidence of damage to the environment and human – including their own – health, react with denial and fear for their jobs. The choice between potential slow radiation poisoning and long-term unemployment is no choice at all. There must be a halt to any further nuclear power stations and the immediate decommissioning of all existing stations.

The vast majority of existing nuclear industry workers would need to work on such decommissioning. Research, development and work on decontamination of spent materials, stations, surrounding land, etc., would be needed for the foreseeable future. Sellafield, for example, which decontaminates spent fuel rods and other by-products, would still have an important role to play in helping us rid ourselves of the consequences of the nuclear industry. Current government policy, for example in relation to the Magnox stations, is effectively to close them down, cover them with concrete for a hundred years or so and come back to them sometime in the future. This is just not good enough – immediate work is required.

At the same time, a rational plan of production would share out work, reducing the working week for existing workers, and would be able to ensure that jobs and re-training are available locally for the minority of workers affected by closures, so that they don’t have to uproot themselves and their families.

Nuclear Fusion

Energy can also be produced by nuclear fusion. This is the bringing together at high energy of small atoms such as hydrogen. This is what powers the sun. While there has been some research, so far it is not possible to produce a continuous reaction that gives off more energy than is required to start and control it. It is possible that in the next 50-100 years nuclear fusion will be a practicable and safe source of energy.

Energy Policy Today

The energy industry is largely influenced by political decisions. In Britain, in the last few years, the Tories dramatically cut-back on the deep mining industry. The pit-closure program was nothing to do with ‘inefficiency’ or economics, let alone concern for the environment, but was driven by political spite. The Tory government was desperate to break the power of the trade union movement by trying to smash the National Union of Mineworkers, who had inflicted two massive defeats on them in the 1970s. Now the pits have largely been closed, there has been a huge increase in open-cast mining, creating a tiny number of jobs in comparison with those lost, and adding all the problems of dust, water pollution and heavy use of roads by large numbers of trucks.

The privatization of the energy industry was a political decision. It has not produced more rational or efficient provision of energy. As the energy companies are now motivated by profit it has made energy planning more difficult. The companies are not interested in saving energy as they make their money by selling it. Safety has also been reduced with British Gas cutting back on staff employed on safety and charging more for inspection of equipment.

Producing useful energy itself requires an input of energy. The fuel has to be transported to where it is needed. Tools, whether an axe and a stove or a nuclear power plant, are used. The production of these tools, power plants and transport systems all need energy. Roughly 60% of heat energy generated from a coal-burning fire will disappear up the chimney.

Energy is used in different ways. Heating air and water needs only low intensity energy, while some industrial processes require highly concentrated energy. Some uses of energy need portable and concentrated energy sources. Electricity is especially useful for powering a wide range of machines, from a music system to motors. However, as electricity generation is only around 30% efficient it should be used mainly where it is most needed. It is especially wasteful of energy to use electricity to heat buildings. A nuclear power station that produces electricity to heat a house is producing 85% waste!

Alternative Energy Policy – Reduce Waste

The planet is awash with energy in many forms. The sun floods the earth with energy. The earth gets 40,000 times as much energy from the sun as from all the burning of fossil fuels. Plants harness the sun’s energy including tides, wind, water-power, fossil fuels, biomass and atmosphere and earth’s surface heat come from the sun. Nearly 99% of the energy used to heat the earth and human life comes directly from the sun. The other 1% of energy used is the energy that is sold or gathered.

An energy policy that is sustainable needs to be based on reducing the waste of energy as much as possible, using suitable types of energy in different situations and minimizing the damage to the environment. This requires a high degree of research, planning and, particularly, co-operation between different sectors of energy production – something which capitalism is hardly famous for. Instead, the gas and electricity industries, for example, spend huge amounts of money advertising one against the other!

Huge amounts of energy are wasted, whilst one quarter of the people of the world suffer fuel shortages. It is profitable for energy companies to sell fuel regardless of whether it is used effectively or wasted. In the USA 84% of the commercially sold energy is wasted, and even some of the ‘useful’ energy is used in wasteful processes. Some of the waste is unavoidable but a conservative estimate is that 43% of the waste is unnecessary.

Two of the largest sources of waste, both of energy and pollution are the car and electricity generation, especially for heating buildings. Cars use only 10-15% of the available energy in petrol. An alternative transport policy (see Chapter 11) that puts priority on public transport would improve the environment and save a great deal of energy.

Households in Britain use nearly 30% of the country’s total energy, mainly for heating space. Yet most is wasted. Houses that are properly designed and insulated can be kept comfortable using passive heating from the sun, people and electric equipment.

Much of the waste of an electricity generation station is in the heat which is deliberately discarded by cooling systems into the air or water. Combined heat and power systems use this ‘waste’ heat to heat buildings. A power station could provide heat for all the buildings of a community.

Conservation measures like better insulation, draught-proofing, and energy-efficient house design, could cut down some of this waste. But grants from the government, where they exist, are constantly cut, and most working-class people have enough difficulty to pay ever-rising gas and electricity bills to be able to afford the initial outlay on making their homes more energy-efficient. While cavity wall insulation, for example, would save the average household £60-£70 a year in fuel bills, it costs up to £500 to be installed. Special energy-efficient light bulbs, which last for years, could save about £10 a year if installed throughout a house but they cost up to £15 each! The privatized gas and electricity companies are more interested in huge bonuses for their fat-cat directors than in energy conservation. In fact from their point of view, the less energy-efficient your home is the better!

Alternative Energy Policy – Alternative Fuels

There are many potential alternative ways of harnessing the flood of energy that fills the earth than fossil fuels and nuclear power. Some have been partially developed and some are probably still only an idea in someone’s head. A major program of research and development is needed to develop these alternatives as they have been neglected and under-funded, while a fortune has been poured into nuclear fission. Many at this stage have only worked in experiments or in small-scale developments. If even a portion of this money and research had gone into the many alternative ideas around today, it is unlikely that, by now, some would have become significant energy sources. The aim of an alternative energy policy is to reduce the waste of energy and reduce the damage to the environment.

As a transitional step to new fuel sources, coal, which is one of the most plentiful of fossil fuels, could be burned in electricity generating stations linked to local heating schemes, using fluidized bed furnaces. This would dramatically increase the efficiency of coal burning and reduce the harmful waste emissions. But, while fitting scrubbers to chimneys burning fossil fuels offers some temporary control of waste gas, they are no long-term solution to pollution or waste. The entire energy economy needs to be transformed.

Solar power can be directly used to heat buildings and water. It can be used to produce electricity. The use of solar power on a well-designed building, such as home, office or shop can provide most of its energy needs of heat, light and low demand motors. Wind power can be used to generate electricity or directly used to power machines. This can either be locally used or fed into an electricity grid. Water power, both in rivers and tides, can be harnessed to produce either large or small amounts of electricity. Unlike burning fuels or nuclear power, none of these produce harmful waste products, although they do have environmental impacts in use of land, raw materials and effects on surrounding environment which need to be considered when deciding what is appropriate.

Fuels for burning, for direct heat, electricity generation and driving motors, include biomass, hydrogen and gas from coal. Biomass – wood, straw etc. – is a renewable resource and can be used directly or fermented into alcohol.

Concentrated and easily transported fuel alternatives to petrol include hydrogen and gas from coal. Hydrogen is a highly efficient source of energy when burned with oxygen and its only waste product is water. Research has established processes that could use solar power to produce hydrogen from water. It is plentiful, renewable and produces no waste that contributes to global warming or acid rain, or gases that damage plant, animal, and human life.

There should be intensive research into the underground gasification of coal. Thus process involves burning coal seams underground to produce gases that can be converted into a gas similar to natural gas. Underground gasification would remove the danger and human drudgery from deep shaft mining. It would produce a relatively clean fuel that was easily transportable and that could also be used as a feed stock for the petro-chemical industry.

Alternative Energy Policy – Suitable Uses

Decisions should be made democratically with full information and by full discussion, rather than as at present behind closed doors by a few big business bosses and government ministers. An alternative energy policy would be based on using the appropriate form of energy for different needs, a wide-ranging increase in efficiency and waste reduction and reduction in pollution. An increase in the research and development of alternative non-polluting energy sources such as biomass use, solar, tidal, and geo-thermal power would allow improved sustainable living standards without damaging the environment.

This would be an all-round win situation as it would improve the environment, save money and resources and would dramatically reduce the energy used in activities and goods. Energy is used, not for its own sake, but for its results: heat, light, power and driving machines.

A change in the energy system, taking into account the issues outlined above – new sources of energy, greater co-operation between sources and more efficient and less wasteful use – is urgently needed. It has been claimed that it would be possible to both increase overall energy use, for the development of production and to satisfy human needs, and to dramatically decrease the present environmental damage. This would allow the ending of the use of nuclear fission and a reduction in fossil fuel use without cutting living standards in the advanced capitalist countries of holding back the much-needed improvements in the neo-colonial world.


  1. The Future of Energy Use, Hill, O’Keefe & Snape, Earthscan, 1995.