ECONOMIST Debate on Renewable Energy (Part I: W. S. Jevons Lives!)
I am part of an online event hosted by The Economist magazine debating the proposition:
This house believes that subsidising renewable energy is a good way to wean the world off fossil fuels.
I am opposed. Defending the motion is Matthias Fripp, Research fellow, Environmental Change Institute and Exeter College, Oxford University, who defends renewables from the premise that “we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 in order to avoid dangerous risks to the environment and ourselves.”
With my opening statement, I began with a recent observation by the rising UK intellectual star Matt Ridley and continued with the timeless insight of William Stanley Jevons. Readers of MasterResource know Jevons well from previous posts, but I wanted to make sure to put him front and center of this debate to awaken his homeland that he ‘refuted’ renewables nearly 150 years ago.
I also bring in crony capitalism, the popular term for rent-seeking businesses in the mixed economy (what I prefer to call political capitalism). That has to be a sore spot among the statists these days, not so much with Solyndra but because their renewables scheme involves so much back-room politicking (cough, cough).
My opening statement follows. Part II and Part III of our debate will follow in the next days. Be sure and vote!
“To persist with a policy of pursuing subsidized renewable energy in the midst of a terrible recession, at a time when vast reserves of cheap low-carbon gas have suddenly become available is so perverse it borders on the insane. Nothing but bureaucratic inertia and vested interest can explain it.”
- Matt Ridley, Gas Against Wind, New Geography, November 3rd, 2011.
Governments should end subsidies to renewable energies and let consumers determine winners and losers. Wind and solar, in particular, cannot power a modern society and require fossil-fuel blending to play even a limited role. Additionally, the alleged market failure of fossil fuels should be revisited in the light of the economic failure and government failure associated with coercive energy planning.
The renewable energy era came to a close with the advent of mineral energy just a few centuries ago. Fossil fuel, a radically superior form of energy in terms of abundance, reliability, portability, flexibility, storability and density, was required to run machinery for the Industrial Revolution to begin the process of lifting mankind out of poverty and into a process of increasing wealth and growth.
Coal, petroleum and natural gas-and now the frontier hydrocarbons of tar sands, orimulsion, shale oil and shale gas-define our energy age. In his 1865 classic, The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines,1 William Stanley Jevons explained how there was no going back. “With coal [fossil fuels] almost any feat is possible or easy; without it we are thrown back in the laborious poverty of early times.” (p. viii)
Fossil fuels, in fact, are required for (intermittent) wind and solar to operate as industrial, modern energy. Windgas, not wind, is what typically goes to homes, businesses and factories, for example. This is because of the prohibitive cost of storage capability at wind farms and in most on-grid solar installations.
Jevons’s views: still relevant
Jevons’s book, which launched the discipline of energy and mineral economics, speaks to the house proposition. Jevons understood the severe shortcomings of renewable energy for a modern age.
Energy density and resource reliability, as Vaclav Smil and Robert Bryce have recently written, explain why politically correct renewables cannot compete against fossil fuels. Their analysis updates Jevons’s insights made nearly 150 years ago, which are worth revisiting (quotations below).
Wind power: not industrial-grade energy
“The first great requisite of motive power is, that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour, for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.” (p. 122)
“Civilization … is the economy of power, and consists in withdrawing and using our small fraction of force in a happy mode and moment.” (p. 122)
Wind power: land-constrained
“No possible concentration of windmills … would supply the force required in large factories or iron works. An ordinary windmill has the power of about thirty-four men, or at most seven horses. Many ordinary factories would therefore require ten windmills to drive them, and the great Dowlais Ironworks, employing a total engine power of 7,308 horses, would require no less than 1,000 large windmills!” (p. 123)
Biomass: land limited
“We cannot revert to timber fuel, for ‘nearly the entire surface of our island would be required to grow timber sufficient for the consumption of the iron manufacture alone’.” (p. 140)
“The internal heat of the earth … presents an immense store of force, but, being manifested only in the hot-spring, the volcano, or the warm mine, it is evidently not available.” (p. 120-21)
“When an abundant natural fall of water is at hand, nothing can be cheaper or better than water power. But everything depends upon local circumstances. The occasional mountain torrent is simply destructive. Many streams and rivers only contain sufficient water half the year round and costly reservoirs alone could keep up the summer supply. In flat countries no engineering art could procure any considerable supply of natural water power, and in very few places do we find water power free from occasional failure by drought.” (p. 129)
The future belongs to the efficient. Efficient energies are those naturally chosen by consumers who know their needs better than an intelligentsia and/or central planners. Government-dependent energies, ipso facto, breed crony capitalism under which rent-seeking by private companies corrupts the political process.
We-the-people energy relegates renewable energy to niche applications (off-grid solar, for example). This is where it should stay in a world where more than 1 billion people need access to the most economic energy, and the rest of the world where economic growth leads to better living.
1 Jevons, W.S., “The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines”, Macmillan, 1865; 2nd edn, Macmillan, 1866; 3rd edn, A.W. Flux (ed.), Macmillan, 1906; reprint, Augustus M. Kelley, 1965.