Geography Of Energy Research Paper

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The geography of energy is concerned with the interrelationship between space and energy as the most important factor in human activity. The production, distribution, and consumption of energy determine all of the basic functions of our existence: work and production, housing, education, transport, communication, and even recreation. Accordingly, an energy chain (Chapman 1989, see also Brucher 1997, Scheer 1999) connects production and consumption, with various stages interacting with space, the environment, and society (Fig. 1).

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Geography Of Energy Research Paper

1. From Energy Chain To Energy System

The use of all kinds of energy (e.g., heat, electricity) and energy resources (e.g., coal, oil) follows such an energy chain, giving it an individual profile. Take, for instance, the example of coal in the old mining areas (the numbers refer to Fig. 1). Underground mining manifests itself at the surface with various installations for the extraction (2) preparation (4), and processing (5) of the mined resource with each installation, connected by transport lines (3). After (possible) storage (6), coal is burnt to produce heat for the consumer (8) or transformed (7) into secondary energy (e.g., coke, electricity). All mining activities harm the environment in various ways through noise, pollution, surface subsidence, and heaps of minetailings. At relatively few locations, the high energy content of this fuel and the great labor intensity required to procure it has resulted in extensive conurbations (e.g., Ruhr (Germany), Midlands (UK), Pittsburgh (USA)). Mining is also an important political object, whether as a basis of energy supply and industry, or as a problem area characterized by economic decline. In comparison to the energy chains of other resources, like uranium, it is evident that there are not only substantial differences between them, but also between their specific impacts on space and on political decision making.

The generation of electricity from water power only, as in Norway, or the exclusive supply of energy by hydrocarbons, as in Saudi Arabia, are rare exceptions. Nearly every country has to use different resources and to combine their respective energy chains. Such an energy mix is based on availability, price level, socioeconomic structures, supply security, environmental protection, and so on. Furthermore, there is a need to adapt to the strategies of the nongovernment energy utilities and find an appropriate degree of acceptance by the electorate (e.g., ‘ green ’ anti-nukes in Germany). Given these and other considerations, every government shapes its own individual energy policy. The less energy a country owns (or estimates it owns), the more influential the impact of policy on the economy of energy will be; a good example for this is the decision of France to produce a maximum of nuclear electricity.

In any given spatial-temporal situation the ecological, and technical conditions of energy supply, together with the energy policy and the utility structures, form a complex system with its specific impact on space. Referring to Debeir et al. (1989), (1991) and Chapman (1989) we call it an energy system. One can find examples based on slavery, on the steam engine, or on the power grid. In the wake of technical and economic progress, and with mounting requirements for energy and its changing forms of application, existing systems are being replaced by new ones. Such a transition from an old to a new system is always combined with a fundamental change in the interrelationship between the energy chain and space.

2. Changing Energy Systems: From ‘ Energy From Space ’ To ‘ Energy For Space ’

Before the Industrial Revolution, energy was obtained exclusively from biomass (e.g., wood, food muscle power), from water and wind, and thus exclusively from the surrounding space. Was this not, ultimately, the decisive incentive for the historical conquests of territories? As the energy content of these resources is very low, there has always been a need to concentrate it: through irrigation and fertilizing, the grain harvest and thereby the human workforce can be increased. Similarly, a ton of charcoal holds twice the energy content of a ton of wood. Let us have a look at the energy system of the Romans. In their capital, up to half of the population was comprised of slaves, the ‘ engines ’ of antiquity. They were ‘ powered ’ by bioenergy derived from cereals supplied from the whole empire via a converging network of roads and shipping routes. Finally, the system destroyed itself through the excessive consumption of energy for transport over excessively long distances. This is the inherent limit of any energy system depending on space (e.g., charcoal, water mills, working animals; see Debeir et al. 1989, 1991).

A new system, the exact opposite of the former, permitted the breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, energy has been gained mostly from fossil fuels, each with an increasing level of energy content, from coal to uranium. The resources are exploited at a restricted number of locations. From there, highly concentrated energy can be distributed ubiquitously by modes of transport fed by the same fuel. Finally, with electricity and the internal combustion engine it is possible to transform one form of energy into another and this at any point on the earth, as with a diesel generator in an isolated Amazon village. In the past, the target was to concentrate a low energy harvest from a limited space. Now, the main purpose is to maximize energy efficiency, which means overcoming with minimum loss the distance between production and consumption.

3. The Subjects And Profile Of A Geography Of Energy

Of course, the geography of energy subjects are characterized by great variety, for example: the energy chain of the resources (e.g., uranium: from pitchblende mining to nuclear power station); the original energy systems of different countries (e.g., the interrelationship between resources, huge distances, and importexport in Canada, see Chapman 1989); the impacts of energy policy on space (e.g., supply in eastern Germany after reunification), or specific problems in the Third World (e.g., firewood in the Sahel). Of topical interest to the current situation is the competition between nuclear power, fossil fuels, and renewable energies, with regard even to global change.

The geography of energy is often considered as a part of industrial geography. Thus, Chardonnet’s work Geographie Industrielle (1962) includes a volume on Les sources d ’energie. Indeed, the production and transformation of energy comprise industrial forms of processing; a power station is as much an industrial plant as a steel mill. In terms of location factors, energy production is similar to industrial production. Nonetheless, even in some publications entitled ‘ Geography of energy, ’ such as George (1950), a specific profile is missing. As in industrial geography, these publications focus too much on the location problem, leading an individual energy resource like coal to be treated as if it were a branch of industry (see George 1950, Sevette 1976). In contrast to these earlier approaches, more modern concepts have also been developed: Fernie (1980), Curran (1981), and Chapman (1989), for instance, insist on the dominant influence of policy, and Chapman shows a new methodical approach oriented by the energy chain. Energy is also being increasingly judged as an important sector in geography (see Calzonetti and Solomon 1985). Nevertheless, the differences between the energy and industry sectors in structure, procedures, and interaction with spatial and socioeconomic conditions have not yet been sufficiently elucidated. There are at least five fundamental differences:

(a) Let us begin with the energy chain. In industrial processing too, there is a sequence of stages between the extraction of raw materials and the production of finished products. Industrial processing, however, lacks the imperative cohesion between the beginning and the end: one can produce an unlimited variety of goods out of steel, even in so-called ‘ footloose industries ’ (industries without special links to location). In contrast to this, moreover, all ‘ energy resources ’ (except for the raw materials for the chemical industry, like oil) are entirely transformed and conducted to an energetic end use, passing by stages on exactly calculated locations. Furthermore, unlike industrial products, consumed energy cannot be recycled.

(b) Three types of energy are line-bounded: electricity, district heat, and gas (except liquefied natural gas). Due to the varying demand during the day, the week and the year, but also according to changing economic trends, the load curve fluctuates continuously. Therefore, line-boundedness requires large, even supranational organizations for transport and distribution (e.g., the European ‘ Union pour la Coordination du Transport de l’Electricite ’) which are not needed by industry.

(c) Whereas industry produces innumerable goods, energy is generated and used in only very few forms. But as it is basic to all human activities, there is an extraordinary demand for energy resources. They are extracted in large amounts, transformed in huge facilities (e.g., power stations, refineries) and shipped by bulk transport systems over great distances (e.g., tanker, pipelines, power grid). Only very big utilities, if not state companies, can afford that.

(d) Enterprises of such dimensions are both the very sought-after political instruments of the governments and competing poles of political power themselves. While everyone feels concerned by energy policy (e.g., taxes, petrol price, and environmental protection), there is no comparable interest in an ‘ industrial policy. ’ In principle, inter-relations between policy and the energy sector are much tighter than with industry, as political power is always established on the control of energy. Political influence is omnipresent, on and between the different levels: the tensions regarding the deregulation of the European electricity market concern local and regional utilities as well as state companies (e.g., ENEL in Italy) and even the European Union.

(e) Only parts of the energy sector belong to the secondary sector: for instance, the preparation, processing, and transformation into electricity, coke or petrol. Simple mining, however, belongs to the primary sector, whereas transport, distribution, and supply are parts of the tertiary sector. Such a vertical structure, from the primary to the tertiary sector, is valid for each energy resource, from oil exploration to the petrol station, as well as for the big companies themselves.

It is true that these characteristics give an individual profile to the geography of energy. Nevertheless, the latter does not figure among the traditional fields of economic geography, in the manner of agricultural or transport geography, which are oriented by one of the three economic sectors. The geography of energy should rather be conceived of as an interdisciplinary area without sharp limits, focusing on the individuality of the energy sector. This individuality is determined by the fact that it embraces all three economic sectors, remains steadily under strong political influence, and interacts with space along the energy chain.

4. Renewable Energies—To A New Energy System ‘ From Space ’?

The interrelationship between energy and environment is one of the central topics in current geographic research. Undoubtedly, the energy chains’ cumulated emissions are by far the most serious cause of worldwide ecological damage. Simultaneously, there is rising worry about the dwindling supply of resources. Against this background, we are witnessing a struggle concerning the forms of energy use (e.g., nuclear power), the markets (e.g., deregulation) and last but not least, the available reserves (e.g., recent wars in the Near East). Against this background, too, the need to increase the use of renewable energies is urgent. That has already caused conflicts between the established forces of fossil fuel economy and the pioneers of a new sustainable energy system (see Scheer 1999). Conflicts are also taking place on a second level. On the one side, the traditionally centralized, very lucrative supply systems based on sophisticated energy chains are easy to control by large enterprises or governments. On the other side, renewable forms of energy can be produced and used at the same location, as for instance through wind or solar photovoltaics on a remote farm. As there is no need for an energy chain, there is neither a basis for control or for much profit, wind and sunshine being free of charge and taxes.

It is too early to outline future scenarios. Possibilities for radical change are in the offing, however, not only in the energy economy itself but also in business structures and policy, with conflicts from the local to the global level. For the established companies, decentralized production and consumption of renewable energies would not only mean ruinous losses, but also a step out of the energy chain, and hence out of influence. Furthermore, the state would lose an instrument of political control. Thus it is not surprising that the traditional system is already adapting to a new one. The large companies, the oil multinationals at the head, are integrating renewable energies into their activities. They want to remain on the top technological level and to prevent a shortage of reserves. In addition, they are trying to conserve their business structures, their networks and, in this way, their control over the system. This is manifested too, in the resistance of large producers to decentralized power generation, as in the example of the resistance in Germany to providing an adequately high level of reembursement for feeding surplus energy from wind generated electricity into the power grid. There are obvious tendencies, too, to recentralize those dispersed microstructures, for instance, by assembling numerous wind turbines in Denmark in ‘ windparks ’. This is also evident in gigantic plans to use nonpolluting hydrogen in densely populated industrialized countries (see Schaefer et al. 1997): The electricity needed for producing hydrogen by electrolysis should be generated by a renewable energy, too—why not by water power in Canada? From there, hydrogen could be shipped to specialized filling stations in European conurbations—via a new type of energy chain.

The transition from one energy system to the next is always slow and fluid; one is adopted without the former being completely abandoned. Preindustrial ways of using energy from biomass or muscles continue to be practiced, although almost exclusively in the Third World. Today we are again witnessing the signs of such a transition to a new energy system: a fundamental change from the rapid and definite exploitation of cumulated, but exhaustive reserves to the sustainable use of resources that are continuously ‘ recharged, ’ directly and indirectly, with solar energy. In a certain way, it is a return to a system of harvesting energy from space, as the cereals were for Roman slaves. It will be generated in small quantities at numerous dispersed locations, although with different methods and different degrees of impact on space than before the Industrial Revolution. The availability of resources as well as environmental constraints and policy will decide in the future to what extent and over which period of time fossil fuels can or must be replaced by renewable energies, and centralized generation be replaced by decentralized generation, respectively.


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