Tag Archives: alternative energy

There’s No Such Thing As Renewable Energy

Previously, we’ve seen that there’s no such thing as sustainable energy because all energy use produces heat, which at some point (around the year 2200, at current rates) will make the planet too hot for us. Along the same vein, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has an article which makes the point that there’s no such thing as renewable energy either. So even if we could use all the energy we wanted — which we can’t because eventually, we’d boil — we are never going to have a source of energy that’s inexhaustible.

At this point, most people say “ok, the sun isn’t technically inexhaustible, but it’ll be around for a couple billion more years, so for all intents and purposes, it’s renewable.” And it’s true, sunlight in and of itself is virtually renewable, but the problem is that we can’t make direct use of sunlight: we need solar panels, and they’re made using non-renewable resources like neodymium. They also have a shelf-life, and need maintenance. Solar plants, like all power plants, are designed for a couple of decades of use, and require a lot of groundwater during maintenance, for cleaning and cooling; in the desert, where solar plants generally live, groundwater is not renewable.

Wind power requires wind mills which are built with steel, concrete, and rare earth metals. Same with hydropower, which needs dams and turbines. Geothermal power and biomass also need turbines and engines; and what’s more is that unlike solar, wind and hydro power, these two energy sources tend to be used at a rate faster than they can be renewed. So even though the source of the energy is renewable, it doesn’t renew quickly enough. After all, trees are biomass, and until oil became the primary energy source, deforestation was a very real concern.

The truth is, there’s no horn of plenty when it comes to energy, and at our current usage, even if the entire planet switched to 100% solar power tomorrow, we will eventually run out of energy. It might take longer and damage the environment less (except for heating up the planet), but it will happen. So ‘renewable,’ ‘sustainable,’ and ‘green’ are serious misnomers when talking about even the most politically correct of energy sources. At best, we can say that alternative energy sources are more efficient and clean — but win/win solutions, they are not.

Now, it could be that some magical new technology will be invented that’s made from abundant elements like carbon and hydrogen, doesn’t create heat as a byproduct, and uses sunlight as an energy source. But until we can plug in our iPhones into ficus trees, it’s better if we just assume that won’t happen.

From The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, via Slashdot

Oil Production Isn’t Declining Any Time Soon

The Wall Street Journal has an article about a company called Continental Resources that found about 4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves in the mountains of North Dakota and Montana. That’s about a fifth of current proven oil reserves in the country, and is one of the reasons why America is now the 3rd oil producer in the world, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. We produce about 5.5 million barrels of oil per day; Russia does 9.7 and Saudi Arabia, 8.9. However, the founder and CEO of Continental Resources, Harold Hamm (not related to Jon Hamm), thinks there are actually not just 4 billion barrels of oil in those mountains, but probably more like 24 billion. All this new oil is being found and extracted due to technological advances, without which the oil might as well not be there.

L.A. has a lot of well-camouflaged oil rigs like this one, right in the city


If the CEO is right, the 24 billion barrels in the mountains would more than double the country’s proven oil reserves, which are now at 19.1 billion barrels. In fact, if he’s right he thinks the country could achieve independence from foreign oil. Compared to the 1990s when we imported almost 70% of our oil, we now import under 50%. And about 40% of that comes from Canada and Mexico so our dependence on other, non-North American parts of the world is already pretty low — about a third. With a huge find in the country, that number could theoretically go down to zero.

But wait, what about alternative energy and global warming? The problem with alternative energy is that economics being what they are, people will always go for the cheapest thing. And right now, oil is by far the cheapest form of energy in most places. Natural gas is second. Solar power is really expensive: if you live in a sunny area and can get all of your power from solar panels on your roof, that installation will run about 30,000$; if your electric bill is the average 105$/mo, it’ll take almost 25 years to make up that installation cost, and by then you’ll need to replace your solar panels, on top of bearing the maintenance costs for 25 years. And that’s only if there’s no winter where you live. Wind is better, but it’s still more expensive than both natural gas and oil. A few years ago, when the price of oil skyrocketed for no reason, it really looked like alternative energy was going to be cheaper — but that’s not the case anymore. All alternative energy sources account for about 2.5% of American use.

There was a time when wind power was not alternative at all. Photo by Hisa Fujimoto


As for global warming, until it starts affecting the economics of oil production, people will only care about it in principle. Sure, everyone wants to theoretically be green, but will most people pay more for wind or solar power? Nope. And even if global warming starts affecting things like agriculture and rising sea levels, that won’t affect the price of oil, because they’re unrelated. It may make the price of wheat and land go up, but not the price of oil — not unless governments start taxing oil more to punish it for the global warming.

And global warming may not even cause the price of wheat and land to go up, because some of the largest landmasses in the world right now are frozen tundra, in Siberia and Canada. If the earth warms up a few degrees, those lands will probably become wheat fields and modestly priced real estate in temperate climates to which people will escape from the hellish heat in the Caribbean.  Also, there’s still the problem that energy use from all sources — not just fossil fuels — causes global warming, just by virtue of creating heat during the conversion process.

2010 International Energy Agency prediction of future oil


But oil is a finite resource, and sooner or later it will start to run out, so alternative energy will become more cost effective as the price of oil goes up due to the diminishing supply, right? The related peak oil theory says at some point, discovery of oil will hit a maximum and will start declining after that, which will cause the price of oil to go up. The theory dates back to 1956, and accurately predicted the peak of US oil production in the 1960s. However, it predicted global oil production to peak in 1995, and it still hasn’t; that estimate keeps moving forward, and as of now it’s sometime in the 2020s. There are two reasons why global production hasn’t peaked:

  • Oil consumption actually declined in the 1980s because of more fuel efficient cars that came about in the aftermath of the oil crisis in the 1970s
  • It looks like conventional oil production actually did peak in 2006, but we now have technologies that get oil from unconventional sources, like the mountains in Montana and North Dakota

So we’ve been using less oil and finding more of it, which means we’re still nowhere close to running out of oil. How not close? At current production rates, we’re good for about 64 years. A handful of countries (Canada, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Venezuela, UAE) could produce oil at their current rates for well over 100 years. Compared to our 19 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (possibly 45 billion if the above-mentioned CEO is right), Saudi Arabia has 264 billion; Canada, 175; the lowest of the 100-year countries are Venezuela and UAE, with 97 billion; Russia has 74 billion; Libya, 47. But populations will increase, as will standards of living in Asia and Africa, which will cause them to consume even more oil. But then again… if recent history’s any indicator, technology will do a lot to mitigate that fact, by creating machines that use oil more efficiently and by finding more usable oil than we have now.

The bottom line is that unless something catastrophic happens, oil will still be the main energy source for most of this century, and maybe even longer. We may slowly be switching to electric cars, but when we plug them in to our homes, that electricity is likely to come from an oil-powered power plant.

From The Wall Street Journal

All Energy Sources Are Unsustainable

Physics professor Tom Murphy from UC San Diego has a very interesting blog post in which he debunks the idea that as long as we have energy sources, we can keep consuming more and more energy, ad infinitum. For the past 400 years or so, our energy use has grown at about 3% per year. If that continues, we will tap out the entire energy of the sun in the year 3200 and the total energy of all the stars in the galaxy in the year 4500. That might seem ridiculously far off, because it’s a whole 2500 years in the future — until you realize that 2500 years in the past, the Greeks were at the height of their civilization.

But as grim as that seems, there’s an even worse problem: a long time before we even get to consuming the entire energy of the sun, the Earth’s surface will get way too hot to sustain life simply due to the heat that energy use gives off as a by-product. At 3% yearly growth in energy consumption, we only have about 200-300 years until that happens — so hopefully the global population will stop growing and our energy demands will taper off long before then. (There’s also the unlikely scenario that someone will invent a way to convert energy without producing heat.)

Al Gore and his carbon/temperature graph in An Inconvenient Truth


A very intriguing idea in his post, however, is that energy use causes global warming, simply due to the laws of thermodynamics. Coincidentally, energy consumption has been increasing steadily over the past 60 years, along with, as Al Gore showed in An Inconvenient Truth, carbon and global temperature levels. However, he correlated the temperature increase only with carbon in the atmosphere and concluded that carbon was the cause and global warming was the effect, because the increase in carbon preceded the increase in temperature. But correlation is not causation. For instance, since virtually all energy consumption (e.g., burning oil or coal) creates both atmospheric carbon and heat, what if the real cause of global warming is actually energy consumption, not carbon? In other words, it could be that energy use makes both the extra carbon and the extra heat: that the problem is thermodynamic, not chemical.

This makes a lot of sense, logically speaking: for decades, our various machines (cars, computers, air conditioners, heaters, etc) have been generating a LOT of heat: where is it all going? Couldn’t all that extra heat be responsible for the increase in global temperatures? It would certainly be nice to see a graph showing energy consumption rates along with atmospheric carbon and temperature. If this is true, then the kicker is that even if we switch to alternative energy sources like solar, and the carbon in the atmosphere goes back down to normal levels, global warming will continue simply because we’re still using as much energy as we were before.

From Do The Math, via Slashdot

Alternative Energy Will Probably Always Be Alternative

The world’s smartest human, Cecil Adams, points out that no matter what our hopes are for a green future in which we all live off of solar and wind power, that’s unlikely to ever happen. His reasoning is as follows:

  • Global energy demand in 40 years is projected to be in the range of 30 terawatts, which is between double and triple our current demand of 13.5 terawatts.
  • If we squeeze out every bit of alternative energy now available (wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, biomass) AND keep using our current energy sources (oil, gas, coal), we might — just might — meet that demand.

Photo by Martin Pettitt


This alternative energy projection is both conservative from a scientific standpoint and unrealistic from an adoption standpoint, so it underestimates and overestimates at the same time, making it accurate by the law of averages. It’s conservative, because it uses current efficiency levels; for examples, solar power is woefully inefficient and expensive, so it’s a negligible alternative energy source. Hopefully there will be some breakthrough at some point that will make it cheap and efficient, but you can’t rely on wishful thinking for projections. And it’s unrealistic, because it tries to get a maximum alternative energy output, and therefore makes calculations based on such maximums as using all arable land for biomass energy, putting a hydroelectric dam in every river and building a nuclear power plant every two days.

Therefore unless cold-fusion, really efficient solar cells, or another magical breakthrough happens by 2050, we’re likely to keep burning gas and coal for as long as it’s around.

From The Straight Dope