A Free-Market Energy Blog

Energy Reality: The Stock Beats the Flow from the Sun (why technology struggles to save ‘renewables’)

By -- November 7, 2009

This article, “Energy to Spare” by David Warren, published in the Ottawa Citizen on November 4, 2009, says much in few words. Energy reality is that the sun’s work over the ages has produced energy sources (oil, gas, and coal) that far exceed the dilute energy from the sun. The stock beats the flow–by a country mile.

This article is reproduced below as a Weekend reading feature:

Will technology solve our energy problems? This seemingly fatuous question is actually stupider than first appears. For we already have the technology to power anything within reason, with minimal if any environmental fallout.

Yet under the inspiration of the Green Zeitgeist, I cannot go into a magazine shop without finding some science-lite cover story on new prospects for harnessing solar, thermal, wind, tidal, or whatever “renewable” forces. There is an immense credulous audience out there, willing to be entertained by such nonsense.

No one with a grasp of high school physics should take any of these schemes seriously. In each case, we are looking at a crank idea from the hippie era, which has not since been significantly improved, because it can’t be.

All are basically bureaucratic arrangements: the idea being to live by taxing wealth produced elsewhere, in this case the kinetic energy in wind and water, or the radiant light and heat from the sun. Hydro was the original big government idea: to install the equivalent of a massive toll booth right across a river, flood everything behind it and starve everything in front. Conservationists going back a century were right to apprehend that the “renewable” paradigm is crazy.

To my mind, as well, the great Hoover dam, built on a scale to choke the Colorado River, was a monument to hubris. On Saturday I mentioned the Aswan dam, that choked the mighty Nile. The Three Gorges in China, the string of hydro dams straddling the geological faults along the Indian face of the Himalayas — unspeakably destructive to the productivity of the lands both before and behind them — are catastrophes patiently waiting for their earthquakes.

And likewise, the scale of desecration that is required for a landscape to supply the kind of power a large hydro dam provides, by alternative “taxation” schemes. Hundreds upon hundreds of gigantic propeller windmills, at each of many dispersed locations. Or, countless miles of coastline impounded to exploit the tides. Or, millions of acres of monotonous solar panels, that work only when the sun is shining.

Moreover, we can know that the environmentalists who demand these things will turn on them as soon as they are built. They are, as all utopians, not people who can be satisfied, and it makes sense to frustrate their ambitions decisively — before, rather than after, their tyranny has been consolidated.

Those who grasp basic physics will know that there will be no serious improvements in the efficiency of any of these “renewable resources.” The sun may be a superbly powerful ball of energy, but its radiation diminishes as the square of distance, and by the time it reaches earth is not intense. Wind is diffuse; water runs slowly.

A candid look at nature reveals that creatures live by finding and burning fuels, as food. We should trust nature to have found the inevitable solutions. Hence, by analogy, fossil fuels. They may not hold out perpetually, but the known reserves continue to grow faster than we can burn them. The engines we’ve designed are vastly less efficient than the engines of nature; but vastly more efficient and practicable than anything that “renews.”

And what do we mean by “renewable” anyway, in a universe as abundant as this one? Nature burns fuels far more efficiently, and could do so more efficiently still, were she not calibrated instead to produce so many useful by-products, that get used without exception.

One-billionth of the potential power in a litre of gasoline is released by the way we burn it, and the same can be said for coal and wood. This is a very poor show!

Some idea of what is possible when we employ more brains comes from comparing nuclear power, where the energy released in splitting a uranium atom is several million times greater than that from merely breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond.

As the journalist William Tucker and many others have repeatedly explained, instead of hundred-car trainloads arriving daily to feed the flames of a large coal-fired generator, we have a single truckload of fuel rods arriving about every third month. And while the waste product may frighten the incurably neurotic, it is small and easily contained. In nuclear reactors, the energy required to power a city the size of Ottawa, for a year, comes from the transformation of less than one ounce of matter.

Not that I would wish to put coal-miners out of their jobs. For as Baudelaire said of Ingres and Delacroix, “Let us love them both.” I love a coal fire, and there are all kinds of wonderful by-products of coal production.

Nor have I the slightest objection to sheeting the sails of my imagined yacht to the pleasure of Aeolus, but the idea of powering cities with rank after rank of these malicious bird-killing propellers is too droolingly idiotic. Let us tilt against them with the power of a million Don Quixotes!


David Warren’s column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday. © Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen


  1. JeffT  

    David Warren may not like the aesthetics of hydropower, but if the same damn is used for hydro electric power, flood mitigation and water storage, can provide more land for food production , water for human consumption and electricity.


  2. Jon Boone  

    Hooray for David Warren for telling the truth with clarion rhetoric. Hydro is likely the most effective power source ever for electricity generation, since it can, where abundant, provide both for baseload and load following capability. However, aside from the “aesthetics,” which greatly disturbed John Muir, it degrades entire sensitive watershed ecosystems; this has a number of costs, including, in the long run, substantial financial costs.

    Environmental groups that sponsor such terrorism as wrought by utility scale wind and solar should be shamed and shunned, since these provide only desultory energy, not modern power performance, in the process making everything and everyone around them work harder just to stand still. And they gobble up and degrade much valuable habitat, impoverishing the environment in profound ways.


Leave a Reply