The View From 1776

Questionable Energy Economics

President Obama says repeatedly in his stump speeches that government “investment” in green energy is a way to create large numbers of new jobs and as a way to reach energy independence.  Neither assertion is true.  Moreover, green energy is extraordinarily inefficient, a bottomless pit for taxpayers’ money.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 08/19 at 10:34 PM
  1. The reason it makes sense to subsidize renewables is that using petroleum fuels is a dead end path for the nation and the world. Thomas, have you noticed that a good part of the country is on fire or in an advanced state of drought? That global warming is happening? Sea levels are rising? That we are running out of fossil fuels?

    The good thing about wind and other forms of solar power is that we will never run out of wind and sun, and the cost of the fuel is zero, and it creates no pollution.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/21  at  08:25 AM
  2. J. Jay,

    You really do keep me in stitches.

    The problem with your ‘reasoning’ is there is nothing reasonable about it. A few local weather events well within the historical norm are not proof of fundamental climate warming any more than the ‘severe winter events’ of 2-3 years ago proved climate had fundamentally changed in the other direction (i.e., climate cooling). Both sets of events only prove something we already know, and have known for centuries – weather changes, sometimes dramatically. At most, it proves something has changed in the short-term, and that ‘something’ was not carbon-based, human-driven energy consumption; because for that to have been true, the change would have to have dominated other climate drivers over a climatically long period, and, rather than reverse a trend, competing drivers would only have slowed the warming (not reversed it) as recently occured. Globally (rather than locally) the planet is not burning up, and in some regions short-term trends balance out seemingly ‘significant’ events.

    Sea levels are not rising, and there has been no ‘scientific evidence’ as supports more than a few inches variation one way or the other (not the 20+ feet of rise Al Gore hypes). Worst case, then is a foot or two of rise per century along our coasts and estuaries by year 2110. This number includes both the natural (historical) trend and the man-made projection hyped by IPCC, and is mostly natural (i.e., will have occurred anyway). The part attributed to man is purely speculative, at this point; and we will simply have to wait a hundred years to find out which climate model is the more accurate predictor. Latching onto every reversal in local weather simply does not a climate model prove or make. Most of the variation we do see is local, and, like weather, tends to cancel out globally.

    Wind is no more a ‘form of solar power’ than are fossil fuels. Both have the sun as source. I realize you did not mean to classify wind as a form of solar, though that is how you put it to us. But, if you really want to make the case “wind and other forms of solar power” are fundamentally different and superior to fossil fuels, then you need to make the case fossil fuels are not solar in origin also (which they most certainly are). And, if you make that case and malign them (fossil fuels) as bad actors, then so too must we ban ethanol and the other ‘bio-fuels’; which get their ‘energy’ by storing sunlight (aka, photosynthesis). Fossil fuels, after all, are just bio-fuels which have been naturally ‘refined’ in such manner as to concentrate all that energy in convenient form.

    We are, indeed, running out of fossil fuels, but not anytime soon, and not as matters to renewables ‘solving’ our long-term energy dilemma. The idea that so-called ‘renewables’ (wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and bio-fuels) can supplant fossil fuels any time soon is laughable, as is your notion the fuel cost of these sources is zero. None of the above sources is 100% renewable (you have confused solar-collector here with root energy source – the sun), it is just that the primary energy source supplying most of them (the sun) has enough energy to last us a couple of billion years before cooling to the point life on Earth is no longer possible; assuming we can efficiently gather, store and convert that energy to usable forms. After that, we must either be on our merry way (elsewhere) or content ourselves with having had a ‘good run’. Of the above list, only geothermal is not greatly replenished by the sun. Wind exists due to the heating and cooling of the atmosphere (ditto for wave energy), hydro depends on a sun-driven evaporation-condensation cycle to keep our rivers from drying up, and bio-fuels depend on photosynthesis. They are renewable in the sense they are quickly and constantly replenished relative to demand. However, if we assume a demand so great that only direct-solar can keep up with us (yes, we really can assume population, consumption, food-production, manufactures, &c will someday reach that point), then only direct-solar can still make the claim of being fully renewable as the others will have to be allowed replenishment-time (just as we need replenishment-time for fossil fuels). Dam up rivers too much to make electricity, and you get a diminishing return from them in terms of hydro capacity. Capture enough wind, and wind speed drops and turbulence increases, again diminishing capacity. Bio-fuels require large quantities of water to produce, thereby robbing freshwater supply to other uses (including hydro). Thus, these “other forms of solar’ are not truly renewable, only abundant enough to seem so to the unenlightened. This makes the main differences between fossil fuels and other solar sourced products one of time-scale, energy-yield, return on energy investment (more on that later), and cost (both in dollars and human-capital) to convert to useful forms.

    It is absurd in the extreme to think (even for a moment) that solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and bio-fuels cost us nothing in fuel. Even if they could be produced without resort to fossil fuels, they are still huge energy wasters as compared to fossil fuels, and, in the case of ethanol, extremely water consumptive. The EROEI (Energy Return on Energy-Invested) of gasoline is about 5/1, whereas the EROEI of corn ethanol is roughly 1.27/1, or about one-quarter that of gasoline. Switch-grass ethanol purports to use water comparable to fossil fuel production (which is overstated), but, so far, has a poorer EROEI than corn ethanol. Bio-methane has a better EROEI, but can’t be produced in significant quantities to matter (at least not without generating a lot more wastes than makes any kind of sense, and without fouling the air so badly even Greens might object). Most of the energy that goes into growing-extracting-transporting-refining-producing either fuel comes from fossil fuels (at least ¾ of it), and in about the same proportion. For it to be otherwise, requires an ethanol EROEI greater than 2/1; which just isn’t feasible. Solar collection panels, likewise require a significant fraction of their ultimate yield in energy to produce. The EROI of wind-generation is deceptive because it does not consider backup systems necessary to guarantee power when there is not enough wind (ditto for solar estimates of EROI, though not as bad). Therefore, none of these alternative energy sources is sustainable without there being some fossil fuel for their production.

    Consider, for a moment your only energy source is ethanol and it takes 4 barrels of ethanol to produce 1 barrel of ethanol, how will you jumpstart ethanol production from scratch. Of course, you must use something else having a much better EROEI to do that. An EROEI of 2/1 barely breaks even, so our EROEI must be greater than 2:1 to be sustainable (much less self-starting). Fossil fuels were and remain start-able and sustainable because it only takes one barrel of crude oil energy to produce four barrels of crude oil equivalent energy in usable form. Of course you can jumpstart ethanol production using crude solar collectors or wood burning (oops, carbon warning!) boilers the way your moonshine making ancestors did it, but that is cheating. Or, you could drag, cart, and float your corn to a handy, nearby geothermal vent (say 2,000 miles) to boil it, but can you imagine even scientifically-knowledgeable cavemen making such an effort?

    Even allowing for a mix of these alternative energy sources (all but wood-burning, fossil and nuclear), you can’t scrape together enough to keep our modern civilization going, maybe not even a medieval civilization (and which of us wants that again?). Of all the forms available to us, fossil fuels have the best energy-yield to cost ratio, nuclear comes a close second, while geothermal, solar and its degenerates are so much more expensive to produce as makes them all but undesirable. If, a century or two hence, fossil fuels do, indeed, dry up, then and only then should we contemplate large scale utilization of such inferior sources. If, a millenium or two from now, nuclear power can no longer sustain us, then will be the time to cover every scrap of desert with solar panels, every canyon and beach with windmills, every fissure with geothermal taps, every wavelet with floating eggbeaters, and reallocate every grain to ethanol not prioritized to feeding the trillions who will no doubt inhabit the planet. By that time, there will be no alternative to using them, and we will just have to put up with the inconveniences they cause; else revert to a far more brutish way of life. There is nothing special about fossil-fuels that they should be made a scapegoat for lesser forms of energy, no reason to conserve them (you’d just be exchanging future winners for present day losers, and making far more losers into the bargain), and no reason to sacrifice any of them on the altar of idiotic Gaia worship.

    http://www.consumerenergyreport.com/2006/04/08/energy-balance-for-ethanol-better-than-for-gasoline/ ; http://www.theoildrum.com/story/2006/8/25/221617/881 – gasoline v ethanol EROEI

    http://www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/AF/557.pdf - ethanol water use
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  06:01 AM
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