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Classical Energy Thinking: Right on Renewables (intermittency), Not-so-Right on Fossil Fuels (coming exhaustion)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 30, 2009

“The winds, turning more mills than ever before, pump water, grind grain, churn, and do a score of little tasks for a surviving domestic industry; but they list not to blow with enough regularity or violence to keep wheels spinning and mills going.”

– Walton Hamilton and Helen Wright, The Case of Bituminous Coal (New York: Institute of Economics/Macmillan, 1926), p. 3.

William Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question (1865), the book that founded mineral economics, got it right on the limits of renewables for the machine age and the godsend of coal as a superabundant utilitarian energy source.

Previous posts at MasterResource have summarized Jevons’s 19th century wisdom on the primacy of coal (carbon-based energy); the limits of windpower; the limits of hydropower, biomass, and geothermal; and the paradox of energy efficiency.…