Harold Morowitz wrote: "The flow of energy through a system acts to organize that system." (emphasis added).
In Morowitz's statement the word 'acts' doesn't mean causes, as in causes specific organizing work to be accomplished. Rather it means enables work to be accomplished which can result in higher organization. In fact, the flow of energy through a system enables all possible work, both work that results in greater organization and that doesn't. What makes a system tend toward higher organization is that useful work, in this sense, provides the internals of the system with greater stability. More sub-systems acquire longevity and chaos is driven downward (though never eliminated). The fundamental selection force is for systems to find their minimum energy state, to settle. But, of course, in this world we are far from a steady-state for all systems. There is still far more raw energy which is available to capture once a subsystem comes into being that can use it to do useful work (e.g. think of the evolution of chloroplasts).
The key to understanding the way the world works, in general, is to recognize that it is the flow of energy that enables everything to happen. Everything. This is not as well appreciated as I think it should be. The fact is that absolutely nothing moves, develops, or grows without the flow of energy being involved. New potential subsystems, like life, may come into existence by virtue of the noisy jostling of existing systems, but if those subsystems prove beneficial in terms of energy capture and use, they will out compete other systems that are less able to use the flow of energy.
Our entire world is what it is today because of the flows of energy acting over billions of years. The sun has been the major source of energy flow in the form of sunlight, particularly light within the band of wavelengths that make it though the atmospheric optical window (energy is also available in gravitational forces through tidal effects and from geothermal heating due to gravity and radioactive decay in the core and mantle). Some of the photons within this spectrum are able to drive chemical reactions. Of special interest are those reactions that lead to energy stored in chemical bonds. Probably of greatest interest to us are the bonds of carbon chemistry that eventually led to the origin of life. Subsequent to that was the development of photosynthesis in which a narrower band of photon energies drive the production of carbohydrates and free oxygen. Carbohydrates can then be recombined with oxygen in a controlled exothermic reaction to produce the energy currency used by cells to drive metabolism. The sun is the primary source of energy flow through living systems. It is also what enables evolution to pick the most successful energy using processes. Success, here, means extending the genes to the next generation and displacing some less qualified genes. The only way that can be done is by being more competent at acquiring more energy flow.
Human beings have extended their own metabolism into the world external to their own bodies. All animal life depends on obtaining its low-entropy resources (materials and energy) from other living (or recently living) sources. Humans started out as hunter-gatherers. Their total energy intake came from plants and animals. One early trick they learned, when the climate turned cool, was to use animal skins to help retain heat (as warm-blooded animals, internal temperature must be kept within a narrow range and if it falls the body starts using up energy reserves to warm up the core of the body). Then they learned to control fire. This latter allowed them to routinely eat cooked foods from which they acquired a greater number of calories per unit weight of foodstuff. In other words, humans were on track to increase their energy flow such that they were more successful at surviving and procreating (including successfully rearing a significant number of their young to sexual maturity).
History is largely written on the acts of finding new ways to produce more energy flow (burning wood, agriculture) or conserving energy (insulating shelters, better clothing, tools in general). Agriculture was certainly a major burst of energy flow and included the ability to build surpluses of energy resources for future use in the form of granaries and domesticated food animals. The industrial revolution produced what must have been the biggest single burst of new energy in the form of fossil fuels (mostly coal). Coupled with the invention of machines that could make effective use of this energy flow, mankind had discovered the ultimate in energy potential. Machines, using fuels, can make the things that humans need (like clothing and plowshares) and saving human muscle power. The fuels allowed this work to be done at a much faster rate than humans could do by hand alone. The comparison between the ordinary real-time solar input through photosynthesis (and primary consumers eating the plants to become food themselves) and the condensed, fossilized ancient solar input is stark. The energy flow provided by foods from photosynthesis could not begin to match the power supplied by the fuels.
Today the economy is an energy flow system. Goods are produced and moved anywhere on the globe we see fit. Gigantic machines extract our fuels and other gigantic machines use the power from those fuels to do economic work. At the base of all human activity in many parts of the world is the modern industrial agricultural system with its massive inputs of fossil fuels. Fertilizers and tractors/combines, and all other farm equipment with their energy requirements make the kinds of high density food production we have now possible.
There is not one economic activity that you can name, not one, that does not involve high power energy flow. The machines we use to do this work require very high input potentials (e.g. high pressure, voltage, temperatures) to do their work. Fossil fuels work really well for this purpose because they are the concentration of, literally, millions to billions of years of concentration of sunlight through photosynthesis produced carbohydrates and metabolism produced fats and proteins being sequestered, pressed, and cooked to their current forms. The energy density of an average piece of common coal is 24 megajoules per kilogram. Light sweet crude oil, by comparison has roughly 45 megajoules per kilogram (biological fats can have as much as 38 megajoules per kilogram but it takes considerable land area and time to produce that kilogram!). In part this is due to oil containing far more hydrogen per unit weight (which is why coal is so much more a source of carbon dioxide when burned, per unit weight). Additionally, due to their chemistry their ability to release their energy content in a short period of time leads to highly concentrated heat, noted by the high temperatures of the reaction, which is the characteristic needed to drive our machines.
The power density of sunlight is about 1.4kW/m2 (on a good day!). Now don't take this too seriously as it is just a rough calculation, but it should give you some idea of what we are up against in thinking about real-time solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Suppose we could capture and concentrate every bit of that power over every second for one hour (power density is an instantaneous value, but humor me here). That would amount to about 5.04 megawatt-hour/m2 of energy. If concentrated by mirrors we could focus it on a boiler to generate high temperatures and boil water to produce steam and drive a generator (say). Now that piece of coal would produce the high temperature and 27.8 megawatt-hour and in a lot less time than one hour!
Another, simpler, way of saying it is that you can walk around in sunlight (low power density) but you can't walk around in a coal-fired boiler. OK it's maybe a bad analogy but I hope you get the idea. Fossil fuels represent an incredibly dense energy source that has been matched to our machines for over one hundred years. Sunlight (and wind energy driven by the sun) requires a huge expanse of area to collect equivalent amounts of energy per unit time. And it has the extra deficit in that it is intermittent. It requires substantially more area to collect a surplus while the sun is shining and then storage to hold the surplus.
All of the schemes for alternative energy sources basically fall short of making up the kind of energy flows that our current civilization demands, let alone what will be demanded if we conduct business as usual and grow the economy. I know there are a large number of techno-believers out there who have taken for granted that technology and sunlight will preserve our consumptive ways. But how many of them have actually run the numbers? How many of them have actually built or designed an alternative energy system? If it shows up in Popular Science or Popular Mechanics it must be real, right? I don't like being the bearer of bad news, or the buster of someone's techno-bubble, but what you read in the press is almost surely wrong and what you read in the tech journals is likely leaving something important out. Recent announcements of huge increases in solar photovoltaic efficiency, for example, fail to mention that the technology shows promise but, oh, by the way, requires high energy cost components (like rare earth dopants) and manufacturing processes that might not scale very well. People read the press announcements and say to themselves, "There that will solve the problem!" No need for critical thinking, huh?
That isn't to say we shouldn't be pursuing alternative energy projects. We should. But we need to face a reality. Alternative energy sources will never replace our current fossil fuel infrastructure. They will, however, if properly done, provide a stable, sustainable source of energy for a much scaled-back civilization that has learned to use energy appropriately.
We are now, finally, as a society, recognizing the implications of generating so much CO2 from our power uses. We know we must somehow cut back. Furthermore, we are beginning to realize that our fossil fuels are dwindling. Indeed we have come to recognize that it is taking more and more energy just to get those dwindling resources. We have a diminishing return on our energy investments in new energy. At some point it will become too energy expensive to get the next unit of oil or coal out of the ground and the fossil fuel age will be at an end. We need the alternative infrastructure in place by that time, just to survive.
Unfortunately there is another serious problem to solve. The number of people in the world and their current consumption rates are so staggering that it is inconceivable that we would ever be able to replicate the combined fossil fuel and all other energy sources with just alternative energies. According to Earthtrends data, the average per capita per year consumption of energy from all sources is about 300.4 kilograms of oil (equivalents) or 7,209.6 megajoules. High income countries consume about 683.3 kilograms per capita and the good citizens of the US consume about 911 kilograms oil equivalents per person per year. If we were really honest about our development goals, we would see that if every person on earth consumed at the high income rate of 683.3 kilograms, with 6.7 billion people we would need the equivalent of 4.6 trillion kilograms of oil (4.6 x 1015). Do you begin to see the magnitude of this problem.
We can never have a world in which there are this many people consuming that much energy. Even if you argue that we can reduce our usage through efficiency and cutting out all frivolous products to, say, 50% (a very unrealistic assumption), we would still not be able to physically accommodate people at what most would consider a desirable material life. If we want our successors to have a chance at a halfway decent life, we will need to have a lot fewer successors living on this planet.
Lately we humans have been meeting a lot of inconvenient truths. Global warming, peak oil, water and soil depletion, all the results of our own foolish ways. Overpopulation is just another in this series. But it is the one that touches all of the others. When peak oil hits and we are on the downward slide the amount of energy per capita available will decrease at an increasing rate. It will eventually fall below the world average but it will do so by pulling down the rich countries the most. The poor countries rely less on oil and coal, though their reliance on local sources, mainly wood, will soon lead to depletion as well. We are all going to be very much poorer.
Suppose we were to begin right now to use our remaining fossil fuel resources to do a massive project to build as much alternative energy infrastructure as we possibly can as quickly as we can. All of us would have to sacrifice a considerable amount. We would all need to pay taxes to fund this effort since the government is basically bankrupt. A sales/carbon tax is my favored approach, but that is another story. The effort would have to be coordinated by a sapient governance (scroll down to July 20 to start reading the series) process so as to not waste energy and time. If we adopted the attitude that our sacrifices would be for the good of our successors and got to work immediately, then our successors might just stand a chance.
More likely we are going to cling to the notion that we can have our cake and eat it too. We will stubbornly hold onto our delusions of grandeur. We will struggle mightily to keep the current version of the American dream alive. But in the end it won't work and we will realize too late that we blew our chance. And evolution through natural selection will do its work.