A Free-Market Energy Blog

Sustainability: Ideology versus Reality (Part I: Biofuels and Solar)

By -- August 26, 2019

“United Nations conference organizers could have invited free market-oriented experts to offer thought-provoking, evidence-based analyses and critiques of UN precepts that are under fierce attack economically and politically. But they invited no such experts…. This intellectual void prompted the Heartland Institute to organize a separate event.”

“Eliminating fossil fuels means the world would also have to replace the oil and natural gas feedstocks for pharmaceuticals, wind turbine blades, solar panel films, paints, synthetic fibers, fertilizers … and plastics for cell phones, computers, eyeglasses, car bodies and countless other products. Including those needs, the required land would roughly require two India’s of land for biofuel plantations.”

They could have had a global teleconference to save millions of dollars and millions of gallons of aviation and vehicle fuel. They could have set a good example and avoided massive carbon dioxide emissions. They could have been more honest, ethical and sustainable … and less hypocritical.

But instead, some 20,000 activists, bureaucrats and politicians have flown to Salt Lake City, Utah, from around the world for yet another climate-related conference, this one the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference (August 26–28, 2019).

The globetrotters are staying at fancy hotels and eating fine food–and debating how the rest of humanity must travel, live, work, drive, farm, eat, and use (or not use) energy. The buzz word is sustainability to save the planet from resource depletion and climate cataclysms.

Conference organizers could have invited free market-oriented experts to offer thought-provoking, evidence-based analyses and critiques of UN precepts that are under fierce attack economically and politically. But they invited no such experts—because the UN and its allies rarely wish to hear contrarian perspectives that upend the shared narrative.

That intellectual void prompted the Heartland Institute to organize a separate event in Salt Lake City this day (live-streamed here).

MasterResource is publishing my essay on true energy sustainability in three parts: Biofuels and Solar (today); Wind Turbines (tomorrow); and The Big Picture (Wednesday).

UN attendees work from the premise that wind, solar, biofuel, and battery substitutes for fossil fuels are essential, reliable, clean, green, climate-friendly, renewable, and sustainable. These claims are false; the technologies environmentally destructive; the UN agenda eco-imperialistic.

The hard reality is that, even after two decades of mandates and subsidies, the world’s total installed wind and solar power still meet only 8% of global electricity demand – and only 2% of overall, total global energy demand. Biofuels are mostly wood and dung. Fossil fuels, providing approximately 85 percent of global primary energy, are still winning.

Twenty or more years from now, says global energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, the world will still be in fossil-fuel mode.

That’s actually a blessing – because the bottom line for “renewable” energy is simple. The wind and sun may be free, renewable and sustainable. However, the technologies and raw materials required to harness this widely dispersed, intermittent, weather-dependent energy absolutely are not.

Biofuel Realities

U.S. ethanol quotas currently consume more than 40% of America’s corn – a cropland the size of Iowa – in order to displace about 10% of America’s gasoline. Corn ethanol also requires billions of gallons of water, and vast quantities of pesticides, fertilizers, natural gas, gasoline and diesel … to produce and transport a fuel that drives up food prices, adversely affects food aid and nutrition in poor countries, damages small engines, and gets one-third fewer miles per gallon than gasoline.

Replacing 100% of US gasoline with ethanol would require some 360 million acres of corn. That’s seven times the land mass of Utah, four times the area of Germany. Replacing the entire world’s 2018 gasoline consumption with ethanol would require biotech corn grown on an area the size of India!

Substitute canola (rapeseed) oil or palm oil for corn – and we would still need to convert billions of acres of crop, scenic and wildlife habitat land, including orangutan habitat in Indonesia, into biofuel plantations.

Eliminating fossil fuels means the world would also have to replace the oil and natural gas feedstocks for pharmaceuticals, wind turbine blades, solar panel films, paints, synthetic fibers, fertilizers … and plastics for cell phones, computers, eyeglasses, car bodies and countless other products. Including those needs, the required land would roughly require two India’s of land for biofuel plantations.

How much land that would leave for food crops, wildlife and scenery? Another vital, unaddressed question is how much water, fertilizer, pesticides, and energy such biofuel production would require.

The point is, this is hardly renewable or sustainable. Moreover, burning those biofuels would still release prodigious “climate-destroying” carbon dioxide!

An equally instructive example of absurd biofuels sustainability claims is England’s Drax Power Plant. Every year, American and Canadian companies cut down thousands of acres of forest habitats and turn millions of trees into wood pellets, which are hauled by truck to coastal ports and transported to North Yorkshire on oil-fueled cargo ships. From there the pellets are taken by train to the power plant and burned in place of coal, to generate electricity – so that the UK can “meet its renewable fuel targets.”

The pellets cost more than coal, which Britain still has in abundance. Utility companies therefore receive hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies every year – which sends electricity prices even higher for British homes, factories, businesses and hospitals. And of course, when the wood pellets are burned, they also generate carbon dioxide – more CO2, in fact, than coal or gas plants, on a total life-cycle basis.

Solar Energy Reality

Solar panels on Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base generate a minuscule 15 megawatts of electricity about 40% of the year from 140 acres. Arizona’s Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant generates 250 times more electricity (3,300 MW), from less land, some 95% of the time.

Generating Palo Verde’s electricity output using Nellis technology would require land area ten times larger than Washington, DC – and the solar panels would still provide electricity, unpredictably and sporadically, about one-third of the year, even in excellent solar locations like Nevada or Arizona.

A useful, educational exercise for the UN conference attendees would be to calculate the solar panels and acreage required to generate the 3.5 billion megawatt-hours that Americans consumed nationwide in 2018 – and explain how that would be sustainable.

Battery Power Reality

Most “renewable” energy advocates detest fossil fuels … and promote battery power backup for intermittent, weather-dependent industrial wind and solar facilities that they want the world to install.

They want to replace the coal and gas backup power plants so that our electricity-based homes, offices, hospitals, factories and civilization don’t shut down for hours or days on end, every time the wind and sun stop cooperating.

Without fossil fuels, ensuring predictable electricity for lights, smelters, assembly lines, the internet, hospitals, refrigerators, stoves and a thousand other technologies would require that we store the excess wind and solar energy we harness in massive battery arrays.

In fact, to have enough to cover current levels of global electricity consumption for just seven windless days the world would need something on the order of five billion 100-kilowatt-hour, 1,000-pound lithium-cobalt battery packs – the kind Tesla uses in its electric cars.  

What about wind turbines? This story, examined tomorrow, is problematic too.

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Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power – Black Death, and many reports and articles on energy, climate change, sustainable development and human rights. This article is based on the talk he is giving today at the Heartland Institute’s alternative sustainability conference in Salt Lake City.

2 Comments


  1. kakatoa  

    Paul,

    I noticed that Crescent Dunes was off line this May and June per EIA’s plant level data.

    By chance to you know why the facility is off line?

    Reply

  2. R. Hanson  

    Palo Verde generates around 3,300 MW from their three reactors…not 11,400. Other than that a good read. R. Hanson Tucson, AZ

    Reply

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