Efficiency is a measure of avoiding waste while doing things well and successfully. Let’s consider it from two perspectives: the world (Part One) and humanity (Parts Two, Three and Four).
The world exists with essentially one energy source – the sun. You can argue that there also is coal, natural gas, oil, wind, ocean currents, and on and on. But without the daily supply of energy from the sun, these other sources would rapidly run out. In fact, chemical energy release, for example, when gasoline is burned to power a car (another chemical process), is the product of stored solar energy converted to chemical compound(s). When the chemicals are processed, energy is released. One can argue that the gasoline is a processed product from the oil and not directly made by storage of solar energy in chemical form, but it is released from a chemical state. In essence, the earth is a rechargeable battery dependent on one charging source.
Is there other stored energy on earth that is made naturally and more rapidly that say coal? Yes. Plants use photosynthesis to covert sun power into food and other things, such as timber, as well as consuming CO2. Plants are amazing machines, but they have a theoretical maximum efficiency of 11 percent. This means that at best 11 percent of the incident solar energy is stored in the compounds that comprise the plants. Keep in mind, however, that plants have a much shorter storage life than coal, oil, etc. Yet humanity is absolutely dependent on them.
With the industrial revolution, mankind found and developed methods to improve efficiency in many processes. It happened much earlier in tools such as the plow, but the pace really took off during the industrial revolution because of the use of more stored energy. While this was a boon for humanity, the rapid, growing dependence on stored energy began affecting the balance between arriving energy, additional energy released and the ability of earth to dissipate excess energy. There is concern that the imbalance is changing the earth’s habitability.
Today we see a growing movement to use solar energy by converting it to other forms (usually electricity) for “immediate use.” In theory, if humanity can shed its dependence on stored energy in fossil fuels, we should be able to return to a more stable environment. Of course, we know that earth has gone through many environmental circles for many reasons, but our knowledge today allows mankind to understand that we are contributors to the change.
In many ways, the column seems like a “go solar” commercial. That is and is not the case. It is the case that our stored energy supply is finite but unknown. One might argue the same about the sun. But we cannot “store or save” the sun for a rainy day, we can conserve the stored energy supply and use more efficiently the daily shipment of sunlight.
It is not the case that an instantaneous transition to solar can be achieved. How long did it take for automobiles to evolve such that an average driver can travel 70 miles per hour in safety? It took more than just automotive technology. It took roads, construction techniques, liquid distribution (fuel), and an acceptance by humanity. What is the efficiency of acceptance?