No Free Lunch!

Book review by Shailaza Singh (published in Rashtradoot Newspaper on 22 January 2021)

In their book, The World of Energy, Engine of Life, Raj Sharma and Vishnu Pareek analyse the entire spectrum of energy, from conventional sources to various alternative sources. The book also provides a perspective on energy policy over the years and explains the fundamentals of energy and all related aspects using clear and straightforward language.

Book Title : The World of Energy, Engine of Life

Authors : Prof. Raj Sharma is currently an Adjunct Professor at Curtin University’s WA School of Mines: Minerals, Energy and Chemical Engineering. Prof. Vishnu Pareek is currently serving as Head of the WA School of Mines: Minerals, Energy and Chemical Engineering, and as Dean of Engineering at Curtin University.

Publisher : Springer

I loved studying science during my school days. During those times, there was a lot of talk about how fossil fuels like coal and petroleum are polluting the world. Chapters about these topics in our school books talked about how these fossil fuels must be replaced by renewable sources of energy like the wind or the sun or electricity. A lot of time has passed since then. However, despite the Gulf war and the excessive hue and cry about issues like pollution or global warming or ozone depletion, alternative sources of energy have really not been able to dominate the world at large. Yes, there are increased instances of people using solar panels or windmills or water or nuclear for generating electricity but they are few and far between as compared to the excessive dependence that the world has on fossil fuels. Despite the various advances in science and technology in the last two decades (internet, smart phones, other gadgets etc.), nothing much has been seen on the horizon for harnessing energy from the much-touted cleaner sources.

This question has always been there on my mind but I could never get an answer to it. The topic of renewable energy sources, pollution and fossil fuels is a good option if you want to sound very smart and intelligent in social conversations but ultimately all those people just end up shaking their heads and shrugging with resignation when one asks them about the solution to this predicament. However, the question about renewable sources of energy has still remained unanswered despite the media’s hullabaloo about all these issues.

So, when I picked up the book titled ‘The World of Energy- Engine of Life’ by Professor Raj Sharma and Professor Vishnu Pareek, I did not have any expectations. After all, after decades of discussion on this topic, the endless debate by the media, the protests by people who believe the world is going to end any day, what could this book which has been published by Springer say which had not been said before?

Energetic Revelations about (US)

As I was reading the book, a paragraph really caught my attention.

“President Carter in his address from the Oval Office on July 15, 1979, said among other things:

…. calling for the creation of this nation’s first solar bank which will help us achieve the crucial goal of 20% of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000. Solar energy contribution to the energy pie in the US today (2018) is less than 1.0%- as against the target stated by President Carter of 20% by 2000!”

The authors go on to say “US with 5% of the world’s population, uses about 20-25% of the world’s energy to lead the lifestyle that it does! One can only try and imagine what would happen if India and China with a third of the world’s population were to provide a similar lifestyle to their people.”

So much for solar power! This is a fact from a country which is touted as a world leader in technology and lifestyle. Moreover, the book also talks about how most countries in the world believe that replicating the Western (US) model of development would be the ultimate sign of having arrived in the developed world but in reality, the model is quite unsustainable since the wastage of energy by the country is quite high.  The authors also bring out the stark contrasts between the energy consumptions of various nations versus their population. What captivated my attention was that today US and China (which is following the US pattern of development) collectively consume about 40% of the world’s energy despite having only 24% of the world’s population! The authors say that the development of China happened on the back of cheap, abundant and reliable energy which was readily available in the form of fossil fuels which fulfil about 87% of China’s energy need. Though India’s energy consumption is less than 6% of the world, 92 % of its energy needs are being met by fossil fuels!

Another myth that this book dispels is “‘green energy’ is not really ‘green’ since it requires ‘black (fossil fuel) energy’ to harness, transform into a usable form and control its use to deliver the benefits of modern life.”

Much ado about Carbon Emissions

By this time, I was hooked because everything this book said was different to what has been largely propagated in the world. The media has been talking about how the carbon dioxide emissions have exponentially increased due to the rapid industrialisation etc. However, the authors say that carbon, which we all know is the fourth most abundant element in the universe is the essence of life on the earth and in the form of carbon dioxide the only source of oxygen that we breathe. According to them the human population in on earth a hundred years ago was about 1.7 billion with a reported CO2 concentration in the atmosphere of about 100 ppm; today (2020), the human population of earth is about 7 billion with a reported CO2 concentration in the atmosphere of about 400 ppm!

Out (Laws) of Energy Efficiency

The three laws of thermodynamics which are considered the gospel truth as far energy is concerned are as popular as the laws of gravitation. However, I have never seen anyone interpret them so interestingly till now.

“-You cannot win

– You cannot break-even either, and

– Everything eventually goes to ‘naught’”

Whether in science forums or important sounding books and journals, people keep talking about how to maximize energy efficiency. However, the authors of this book are very clear that “one cannot do without energy-but there is no free lunch!”

Sunning Away!

Everywhere in this book, the authors have clearly stated some interesting facts!  Every form of energy whether fossil fuels or the much-hyped alternate sources are a result of the sun shining on the earth. Without the sun, nothing is possible!

The only ‘green’ energy on Earth in the present day meaning of the term, is that received directly from the Sun in its raw, nascent and pristine form. Period. Full Stop. Everything else is ‘Black’. Nature has provided an automatic clean-up mechanism for the carbon waste in the form of the carbon dioxide cycle. It is the ‘clean, green energy- solar and wind in their raw and natural state-that gave Man his start and it is this energy that Man left behind in his quest for ever more.”

(Has the) Climate Chang(ed)?

“It is interesting to note that CO2   in the Earth’s atmosphere has been much higher in the past than it is today; and, there does not seem much correlation between CO2 concentration and Earth’s temperature.”

The authors believe that labelling climate change as a man-made phenomenon and to pin it on fossil fuel driven carbon dioxide emissions is too simplistic. They believe that earth has been through cycles of warming periods and ice ages over hundreds of millions of years where sea levels have risen and deserts have been formed time and again. The activists have been harping away and campaigning on the ‘burning’ issue of the climate change but the book begs us to think about it from a different perspective!

(No) Conclusions

This book offers no conclusions or solutions- the authors have been very clear about this aspect from the beginning to the end. They have simply presented facts based on a lot of different studies that have been done over the years which in a way dispel many myths surrounding the world of energy. Yes, there are some suggestions like revisiting the old cultures like those of India and other countries of the world to understand deeper aspects of energy and its conservation but even those are marked with a ‘perhaps’. The authors make no bones about the fact that fossil fuels do have a competitive edge over the other alternate sources of energy due to a variety of reasons like their ease of use, availability and harnessing power.

The Last Word

The debate on energy has been a long standing one. Over time, the lack or abundance of energy has caused wars, created controversies and catapulted many activists to limelight. This book brings a lot of perspective to these burning topics and is interesting even for those who are not from a science back ground and offers an insight into the much debated and very controversial topic of energy. Read it and form your own conclusions! After all, there is no free lunch!


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