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The Energy Oath: In Production and Use Do Good or No Harm

The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.”  Hippocrates.

He said this in Of the Epidemics written in 400 B.C.E as opposed to the Hippocratic Oath to which it is more widely attributed.

Regardless of its origin, “to do good or to do no harm” is an excellent maxim to follow with respect to the production and use of energy, which is fundamental to the quality of modern life, or for that matter virtually any enterprise.

Increasingly it is becoming clear that in our extraction, production, transportation and utilization of existing energy sources that are in the main finite we are doing considerable harm to our environment.

As the following Wikipedia diagram shows our renewable energy options are extensive and our global consumption modest by comparison. Even if we were to quadruple our current consumption in order to provide all 10 billion people on the planet by 2050 the level of energy prosperity we in the developed world are used to.


Clearly solar power is the most abundant. As Wikipedia points out, almost all of our energy comes from the Sun; the exceptions being tidal, nuclear and geothermal power.

Wind comes from the uneven heating of the earth’s surface, and can provide about 1% of the energy that is available from solar power.  

Solar power is more predictable than wind but more variable considering it is not available at night and limited by cloud cover. Nevertheless the Scientific American article A Path to Sustainable Energy By 2030 suggests that at least 580 TW of solar power can be produced.

Thermal energy and pumped energy storage have been suggested as ways to overcome the intermittence of wind and solar.

Global warming is the most significant consequence of current energy use and as the following graphic indicates is a problem of thermal energy storage, mostly in the world’s oceans.


Logic dictates therefore that it is this excess energy that we should be depleting by putting it to productive use or at least moving to a location where it can do the least damage.

The consequence of upper ocean heat storage are; thermal expansion and sea level rise, the melting of polar icecaps leading to more sea level rise, increased concentrations of water vapour in the atmosphere, which arguably leads to more intense storms, and potentially catastrophic temperature increases of as much as 4oC by the end of this century.

We can do good for the planet by converting some of the upper ocean energy to at least as much power as we derive from fossil fuels by the process of ocean thermal energy conversion and in the process move about 20 times more heat into the deep ocean that has both a great capacity to absorb heat.  In the process this will decrease the intensity and possibly the frequency of tropical storms.

In his 2006 State of the Union Address, George W. Bush stated, “America is addicted to oil.”

All addictions are destructive.

A pledge to stay sober for today is a common refrain amongst addicts. The rationale is; if I stay sober today, I don’t have to drink for the rest of my life because it’s always today.

Getting off fossil fuels will not be easy. Weaning ourselves day by day is the only way we will get to where we need to be but for every terawatt we get rid we will have to find two to four times as many terawatts from sustainable sources.

Energy is hugely important as is its impact on the next nine most significant problems we face.  

There are not however that many ways to do good while producing energy so we must start maximizing the impact of those that are available to us as rapidly as possible.

It is long past time we took the pledge to do good AND do no harm as we produce and use the energy we need! 

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