“Renewable energy” has two fundamental conceptual flaws. It’s not really renewable, and it’s not really energy.
What is “Renewable”?
“Renewable” in most definitions approximates to something like “naturally replenished” and it often contrasted with allegedly inferior, “finite” sources. It brings to mind the image of a pizza where a slice, once eaten, magically reappears.
There is no such phenomenon in nature, though. Everything is finite. The sun and the photons and wind currents it generates are not infinite; they are just all part of a very large nuclear fusion reaction. True, that nuclear fusion reaction will last billions of years, but so will the staggering amounts of untapped energy stored in every atom of our “finite” planet.
To obsess about whether a given potential energy source will last hundreds of years or billions of years is to neglect the key issue that matters to human life here and now: whether it can actually provide the usable energy that will maximize the quantity and quality of human life.
Usable vs. Unusable Energy
The key question about energy is not whether it is “finite”–everything is–but whether it is usable.
This is borne out by the history of energy production. For most of human history, our amount of usable energy was barely above the amount needed to power our muscles (and during famines, not even that). There was copious amounts of unusable energy–the chemical bonds in deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas, the mechanical energy of the wind, the photons of the sun, and, greatest of all, the energy stored in all the matter around us, whose proportions were quantified when Einstein identified that E=MC^2.
Every advancement in energy production consisted of taking some unusable source of energy and rendering it usable–windmills for grinding grain, water-wheels for operating simple machines, and ultimately concentrated hydrocarbon fuels that multiplied human productivity hundreds of times over.
Hydrocarbons et al are often called “finite natural resources,” but this is a misnomer; they are not naturally a resource. They become resources–i.e., they deliver services–only insofar as they are rendered valuable by human intelligence. This is Julian Simon’s crucial identification that the human mind is “the ultimate resource” that creates new resources, including energy resources, by discovering how to extract new services out of previously useless raw materials. We should not think of unusable raw materials as resources until or unless they are rendered usable by human intelligence.
This last applies to the sun (and the wind), the ultimate source of “renewable” energy. The vast majority of sunlight does not provide usable energy given any known technology. True, through photovoltaic conversion, a solar panel in most places can generate an electrical current of some magnitude. But who cares? A hurricane produces many h-bombs worth of mechanical energy–does that make it an energy resource? Not if it can’t be harnessed in a manner that provides the cheap, reliable power that we can use to meet our present and future needs. In the vast majority of cases, solar conversion technology can’t, the energy collected is too dilute and intermittent to be a useful source of large-scale energy.
Real Energy vs. Hypothetical Energy
So “renewable energy” as it is commonly used to mean solar and wind, is not “energy” in the economic sense of the word. It is a hypothetical source of energy that we know of, but that hypothetical deserves no more privileged status than any other kind of hypothetical (the ability to unleash atomic energy from a wide range of elements) let alone methods with far more promising potential (e.g., the potential of uranium and thorium to generate tens of thousands of years worth of energy).
The idol of “renewable” energy is part of the broader idol of “sustainability.” Both of these are false idols that obscure the true beauty of capitalism, which is that in producing energy–and everything else–it is better than “sustainable”–it is progressive. “Renewable” or “sustainable” implies that the ideal life trajectory is one of repetition, using the same methods and materials over and over.
But that is an ideal fit for an animal, not a human being. The human mode of existence is to always get better, always improve, always discover how to use new raw materials to create energy.
A False Ideal Born of Green Mysticism
The root of the fetish with “renewable” energy is the Green ideal of minimizing man’s impact on nature. This is borne out by the fact that the only practical “renewable” source of energy, hydroelectric, is widely opposed by the Green movement for interfering with “free-flowing rivers.” That movement prizes solar and wind despite their horrendous track record for ideological, ultimately religious reasons: the idea of a society only relying on the sun and the wind is congenial to their ideal of a world in which man tiptoes on the planet instead of transforming it.
If we cast aside the Green religion, “renewable energy” is false ideal that has no place in a rational discussion of energy. The only question that matters about energy is: what sources of energy will best advance human life now and in the relevant future (not 5 billion years)?
And the only way to answer that question is to leave producers and consumers free to seek out ever-better answers in a free market. Then we will always have the best kind of energy–progressive energy.