“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.
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Thank you for a wonderfully, on-point synopsis of our real energy crisis: the conflict between a secular religion, and Science.
To promote their self-serving agendas, Science is under intense assault, even from within its own ranks. Such claptrap as PNS and consensus science is indicative as to how far things have deteriorated.
We need to periodically step back and see things in a more realistic perspective, and your article is a good contribution to doing just that.
Well said. But if all progressive energy stems from human ingenuity, and human ingenuity is infinite…
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Hmmmm. A few observations.
1. Everything is energy–a hangnail, a thimble of “empty” space, Niagara Falls…. Ect, ect, ect. E=MC2, indeed. Energy is a “conserved” resource.
2. All material things, from hydrogen atoms to the human brain, are at root machines that convert energy into power. It is power that is at issue.
3. Barring unforeseen events, such as an asteroid hitting the planet and causing a wide swath of destruction, the most successful machines are those that convert energy into power in ways that encourage diverse production, both in time and in material storage. Which production and storage engenders the conversion of more energy into power.
4. Humans are animals and they are not outside “nature.”
5. Culture has been too often been at odds with wild nature; wherever large clusters of humans are, there is much less of everything else; this is not a religious issue but one that is physical, measurable, and, with increased knowledge, preventable. Because it is ingenuous, culture does not have to degrade the earth and air, and diminish diverse biota because it can. Indeed, human ingenuity–its ability to learn from its mistakes–is the wellspring of informed environmentalism, not the dopey kind that continues to infuse current mainline environmental organizations.
6. “Progressive” power conversion should not be an excuse to cut back on government environmental “regulation,” although it has too often been a code word for doing so. This has been the mantra of every wind developer I’ve ever encountered, and is now used to “excuse” wind operations from killing protected wildlife, reducing property values of neighboring properties, and diminishing quality of life, wherever it is found.
I would much prefer tiptoeing energy extraction to the kind of loutish behavior that has been so characteristic of the human enterprise for much of its history. Energy extraction and power conversion should be extremely knowledgable about a range of consequences and attentive to reasonable standards of civility.
Tom, :-). But I like the terminology “unlimited” rather than “infinite” to describe human ingenuity, in the sense that there are no limits to moving forward. On a personal level, we all wish human ingenuity was “infinite”–life would be a lot easier!
Actually this article confirms Malthusian thought – potential does not equate to actual. Who cares how much hydrocarbons is on Titan, how much water there is on Europa or tritium on the Moon? Those resources cannot be profitable acquired therefore they may as well not exist.
Aternatively, it could be said there’s no usable energy in matter – the e you get from mc2 is irrelevant ,the energy compacted into matter is in a stable state and requires more energy to extract it than it contains.
Finally, far from “a Malthusian catatrosphe will never happen”, they have happened and continue to happen. The trick being humanity doesn’t go through one as a whole instead there’s mini-catastrophies happening all around the world where pockets of people can’t feed themselves. Did those starving Africans innovate their way out of starvation in the ’80’s? No, plenty starved to death. Not to mention, a Malthusian catastrophe isn’t just population outstripping technology but the population being stable while the technology has been removed. You know, as in Russia was the “granary of Europe” before Lenin and Stalin and Rhodesia was the “breadbasket of Africa” before Mugabe.
There’s demonstrably plenty of usable energy in matter; otherwise organization, not to mention life, would be impossible. The second law of thermodynamics does ensure that perpetual motion (power) machines can’t exist and that even with the most efficient transactions more energy would be required to run any machine than would be “saved”–thus subverting the idea of “sustainability.”
All that notwithstanding, I think it is overwhelmingly likely that our species will, sooner than later, much more efficiently harness the energy from atomic nuclei, leading to notions of power only dimly glimpsed today. We are only beginning to understand the potent relationship between chemistry and nuclear processes–as mediated by quantum mechanics.
Properly nurtured, our current notions of communication, transportation, heating/cooling, and illumination will likely seem as antiquated a century from now as machines for those purposes a century ago appear today. In the process, we can preserve the rain forests–and sensitive ecosystems everywhere–while giving all 10 billion + people a purchase on modernity.
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Julian: Really, you should be embarrassed by this post — it is shallow, and even vapid, and shows a very unsophisticated view of the issues.
I see you have a relatively new organization you need to support, but you are going to have to do much, much better than this to make it in your field. IMHO.
The usuable energy is about the molecular bound as opposed to the bound that would hold fundamental particles together. The only known way to release energy from particles is with anti-particles but they have to be created with more energy than would be released.
On your hydro point, a recent piece at Climate Progress has brought potential new hydo back on the Enviro plate. It isn’t Joe Romm but another writer, Stephen Lacey. http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/04/27/472076/congressional-uncertainty-threatens-12000-30000-mw-of-possible-hydropower/
Can you give us a few examples? Could be that elaboration could produce two longer posts: one on what is ‘renewable’ and what is ‘energy’.
I think the key about ‘what is renewable’ is that from a business/economic viewpoint, the appraising mind is causal–not some physicist who declares that some physical supply is known and fixed.
Such explains why ‘depleting’ supply expands, whether it is natural gas or a hard mineral.
Although your ideas about nuclear power might amuse Montgomery Scott in Star Trek, those who do real work in the industry know the strong force is harnessed a number of ways–and without antimatter, although matter/antimatter collisions release incredibly efficient energy production, as Dan Brown fictionalized in his Angels and Demons–even without the mediation by “dilithium crystals.” However, as I said, the 2nd law proscribes net energy savings re any machine transaction, including matter/antimatter.
Matter is energy. And thus the energy of every quark/gluon, electron/photon can be converted to power.
It is vital to distinguish between energy as a *physics* concept and energy as a *human* concept. As a human concept, it means, essentially, usable energy–the capacity to do physical work to make human life better. And going further, the relevant form of usable energy is *economic* energy–usable energy in its best known form.
Most discussions of energy mix and match usable and unusable energy as if they were interchangeable. For example, the typical line that enough solar “energy” hits the earth every minute to give us more power than we could ever need.
Advocates of “renewable” “energy” advocate replacing economic energy with uneconomic, often unusable energy. “Renewable” is a mystical term designed to derogate the necessary human process of converting finite energy sources from unusable to usable forms. And as I argued, that process is not only necessary, it is progressive.
Rob, re: hydro, there are plenty of Green leaders who will say they are in favor of some hydro under some circumstances, and they may even say that about nuclear. In the same sense that there were some Communists who didn’t want to throw all businessmen in jail; most members of irrational ideological movements are inconsistent, and acknowledge some measure of reality occasionally. But the essence of the Green position is anti-development and anti-progress, and that determines the basic nature of their impact: anti-development and anti-progress. On this count, “Merchants of Despair” by Robert Zubrin is must-reading. Also, my “Industrial Manifesto” hits the basics. http://industrialprogress.net/2011/09/28/the-industrial-manifesto/
The desired ultimate end point of the CAGW movement is a global vegan commune with a population of ~1 billion, run by a global government of the enlightened elite. (HT-George Orwell)
How does artificial fusion so far? Nuclear fission. How does nuclear fission work? Because large, unstable nucleii fall apart and were naturally pre-made via supernovae.
It’s akin to saying “imageine how much energy a boulder could generate when rolling down a hill” when the boulder is already at the bottom of the hill and to get it up to the top of the hil is to expend more energy than would be given.
Orwellian control of humanity requires control of energy. To accomplish this, the monopolists have constructed an interlocking false paradigm around Carbon climate forcing, green energy and peak oil. The article “Becoming a TOTAL Earth Science Skeptic” summarizes all of these defects with links to other articles. One seldom mentioned defect of photovoltaics is the actual method of operation and the ridiculous difference in service life electrical output vs fossil fuel input investment energy. This molecular erosion parlor trick is described in “Green Prince of Darkness”. Hydrocarbons are a natural by-product of Earth’s variable fission process and therefore NOT finite in the forseeable future. The production rate is most likely less than current consumption rate, but that is a solveable problem. Abiogenic petroleum is discussed in “Fossil Fuel is Nuclear Waste”. It is time to end the Faux Science lies.
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