The myth of “renewable” energy

posted at 2:45 pm on November 22, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Politicians have talked about “renewable” energy for so long that no one questions what it means any longer, writes Dawn Stover at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication that prides itself on “inform[ing]  the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies in the life sciences.”  People think they know what energy sources are “renewable” — primarily the sun, the wind, and the water, although Stover includes biomass in the definition as well.  Stover points out that writers use quote marks around “clean” and “green” when discussing energy technology, but rarely around the word “renewable” — but argues that the concept of renewability deserves the same kind of skeptical treatment as “clean” or “green”:

As the US Energy Department explains it to kids: “Renewable energy comes from things that won’t run out — wind, water, sunlight, plants, and more. These are things we can reuse over and over again. … Non-renewable energy comes from things that will run out one day — oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium.”

Renewable energy sounds so much more natural and believable than a perpetual-motion machine, but there’s one big problem: Unless you’re planning to live without electricity and motorized transportation, you need more than just wind, water, sunlight, and plants for energy. You need raw materials, real estate, and other things that will run out one day. You need stuff that has to be mined, drilled, transported, and bulldozed — not simply harvested or farmed. You need non-renewable resources[.]

Solar is not renewable?  It is if all the energy you need is for a suntan, but not if you plan to convert it to electricity:

While sunlight is renewable — for at least another four billion years — photovoltaic panels are not. Nor is desert groundwater, used in steam turbines at some solar-thermal installations. Even after being redesigned to use air-cooled condensers that will reduce its water consumption by 90 percent, California’s Blythe Solar Power Project, which will be the world’s largest when it opens in 2013, will require an estimated 600 acre-feet of groundwater annually for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment.

What about wind power?  That requires an awful lot of steel, concrete, and less-ubiquitous items like rare-earth metals, such as neodymium and dysprosium that are hard to find and harder to extract — and that take a lot of energy to produce in usable form, as we’ll note in a moment.  That’s also true of solar panels.  How about dams and hydropower?  They make the steel and concrete needs of wind turbines look like a drop in the bucket.  That doesn’t take into account all of the electrical-transmission equipment needed to bring that power to market, and all of the real estate that takes. Stover describes what it would take to convert today’s energy demand into “renewable” energy production:

But meeting the world’s total energy demands in 2030 with renewable energy alone would take an estimated 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar power systems. That’s a heckuva lot of neodymium.

Speaking of the manufacturing challenges, Tim Carney notices an interesting NY Times report on a plan by China to defuse a potential solar-tech trade war with the US in the short run, while preparing for a longer political battle.  Just how “green” are solar panels in practice?  Not very, and not very efficient, either:

The manufacture of polysilicon requires enormous amounts of energy — so much electricity that it typically takes the first year of operation of the panel to generate as much power as was required to make the polysilicon in it. The process requires superheating large volumes of material in electric-arc furnaces, including the melting of quartzite rock at more than 3,600 degrees Fahrenheit….

China’s own polysilicon industry is controversial because it relies heavily on electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, and because weak environmental controls at Chinese polysilicon factories have resulted in toxic spills that have fouled streams and rivers.

China’s autocrats can get away with ruining the environment in the cause of “green” energy, but that doesn’t work out as well in the US:

Chinese manufacturers have studied moving solar cell factories directly to the United States but have largely rejected it in favor of other countries because it takes so long to comply with the many American regulations for opening new factories that use a lot of chemicals, according to a Chinese industry executive, who spoke on condition that neither he nor his employer be identified.

And China has a relative abundance in the rare-earth compounds needed for the manufacture of these panels, and the other so-called “green” energy technologies.  How about the US?  Er … not so much.  We would be even more reliant on foreign and rare resources than we are now in the fossil-fuel economy in which we currently live, so put some scare quotes around the notion of “energy independence” as a result of switching to “green” “renewable” energy, too.

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Build the Keystone Pipeline!!!! More and cheaper oil for North Americans, and fewer Canadian and US warfighters having to go to the Middle East.

KillerKane on November 22, 2011 at 2:57 PM

“… Non-renewable energy comes from things that will run out one day — oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium.”

Really…?

“For instance, the Gulf of California, an ocean basin in development, is making new oil and gas in real time today.”

Seven Percent Solution on November 22, 2011 at 2:59 PM

And China has a relative abundance in the rare-earth compounds needed for the manufacture of these panels, and the other so-called “green” energy technologies. How about the US?

Ed, Ed, Ed. The US has REE, 13 million metric tons estimated.

The only point here is that we’ve decided that the mining and processing is too dirty, dangerous, and expensive to do in the US.

chimney sweep on November 22, 2011 at 2:59 PM

Ed, why are you such a racist?

carbon_footprint on November 22, 2011 at 3:02 PM

In Washington State, they had a “renewable” energy initiative that would force energy providers to have about 20% of their energy supplied from “renewable” sources. However, they decided that hydro power wouldn’t qualify for the purposes of this initiative.

It’s all a sham.

SouthernRoots on November 22, 2011 at 3:05 PM

But meeting the world’s total energy demands in 2030 with renewable energy alone would take an estimated 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar power systems.

Let’s get started! We can tax the “rich” to pay for it all.

Two conditions:

1) None of these plants can be built anywhere that would ruin the scenic views of demorat politicians, limousine liberals, or Hollywood eco-hypocrites.

2) All of it must be produced ONLY with union labor.

Bishop on November 22, 2011 at 3:06 PM

If liberals had been running things during the Stone Age, the human race would still be sitting in caves, terrified of the ever-impending “Flint Shortage.” And eventually that prediction would be self-fulfilling.

logis on November 22, 2011 at 3:08 PM

It is not about renewable energy, it is about the Democrats finding a near unprovable or difficult to understand subject (and turning it into a sub-religion) so that the Democrats can use it to stay in power or take power from the other political party.

Democrats: “Republicans are bad, they want to pollute with dirty oil and are against making clean energy with wind and sun…”
Republicans: “But the facts show a different story.”
Democrats: “See…Republicans are against renewable energy…so vote Democrat next time you vote.”

albill on November 22, 2011 at 3:09 PM

Just how “green” are solar panels in practice? Not very, and not very efficient, either:

They also don’t last very long. The sun degrades the panels so that they put out 40% less electricity after the first year.

“For instance, the Gulf of California, an ocean basin in development, is making new oil and gas in real time today.”

There are areas of the Gulf of Mexico where petroleum and gas oozes naturally from cracks in the sea floor, and are digested by bacteria living in the Gulf. If these sources could be captured, they could add to the oil supply.

Steve Z on November 22, 2011 at 3:10 PM

I still don’t quite understand why lightning can’t be used as a power source. Sure, it’s random, but it’s always striking somewhere.

lorien1973 on November 22, 2011 at 3:10 PM

What a load of cr#p. Water evaporates, plants wither and die, forget about cutting down a tree, haven’t seen the sun in days, the wind isn’t reliable unless you live in ND, and Montana just spent millions tearing out an old dam and straightening out a river that used to run through it. If a politician hears any crackpot idea they think can be used to con us out of our money, they’ll give it a try.

Kissmygrits on November 22, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Rest easy everyone, I’m on the verge of figuring out how to create asphalt, cell phone cases, and lubricants from “wind”.

Bishop on November 22, 2011 at 3:18 PM

If a politician hears any crackpot idea they think can be used to con us out of our money, they’ll give it a try.

Kissmygrits on November 22, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Now that’s just crazy talk…!

/

Seven Percent Solution on November 22, 2011 at 3:20 PM

RENEWABLE IS A PROPAGANDA TERM AS IS FOSSIL FUEL.

AS IF ONE WAS ETERNAL IN SUPPLY AND THE OTHER FINITE.

ONLY OIL IS MOSTLY ABIOTIC – A BY-PRODUCT OF THE EARTH’S DEEP GEOTHERMAL PROCESSES.

AND WE WON’T EVER RUN OUT.

OR DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT THE POCKETS OF OIL 5 MILES BENEATH THE ROCK UNDER THE OCEAN ARE THE RESULT OF THE SEDIMENTATION OF PLANKTON AND DINOSAURS!?

THE WHY ISN’T IT EVERYWHERE? ND WHY DOESN’T OIL EVERYWHERE HAVE BIOTIC MARKERS?

reliapundit on November 22, 2011 at 3:20 PM

1) 1 word : ‘Solyndra’!

2) Can anyone name me a substitute for petrleum? Do people even REALIZE how many of our every-day products are petroleum-based products? I am all for weening ourselves off of fossil fuels…to a certain extent, but the reality is there is NO REPLACEMENT for fossil fuels, which – again – so many more products we sue daily than we think about comes from.

3) Obama has successfully proven, for now, is that the only thing that is created in abundance from ‘Green’ companies and government investing in ‘Green’ energy/companies is ‘Capital Cronyism’, government fraud, and the fleecing of American Tax Payer dollars!

easyt65 on November 22, 2011 at 3:20 PM

When taking “green” and “clean”, just follow the $cience.

GarandFan on November 22, 2011 at 3:23 PM

i had to go to the Bulletin’s link to find the punch line

There are now seven billion humans on this planet. Until we find a way to reduce our energy consumption and to share Earth’s finite resources more equitably among nations and generations, “renewable” energy might as well be called “miscellaneous.”

what is bizarre is that the author had already said in the previous graf that even retrofitting building to super duper efficiency standards wouldn’t help CA very much, because of population growth.

So really it is all about pop growth. Now to prevent that the world would need a one-chld policy…well, of course barrycare will help too.

So I await the new theory of Zeke Emanuel’s complete lives theory that factors in Degradation of Gaia. The DoG factor would reduce the value of life based on the population load of the world. So healthcare would be available only to a limited number past 8B people say.

r keller on November 22, 2011 at 3:25 PM

I can look out my windows today and see a far cleaner atmosphere than I did when I was a kid (many years ago). We are “green” already. We can burn the Canadian “sand oil” much cleaner than the Chinese or anybody else, so why is it better to not burn it and let the Chinese buy it and burn it with no environmental controls at all? It’s clearly not about the environment. It’s about political control of energy, and thus the control of everything.

wb-33777 on November 22, 2011 at 3:26 PM

OK everyone…

… here is the list, start marking off everything you currently use and throw them away.

A partial list of products made from Petroleum (144 of 6000 items)

See you in the caves…

Seven Percent Solution on November 22, 2011 at 3:32 PM

Hydropower. Using currents, waves, and tidal energy to produce electricity is still experimental, but hydroelectric power from dams is a proved technology. It already supplies about 16 percent of the world’s electricity, far more than all other renewable sources combined. Maybe that’s why some states with renewable portfolio standards don’t count hydropower as a renewable energy source; it’s so common now, it just doesn’t fit the category formerly known as “alternative” energy. Still, that’s not to say that hydropower is more renewable than solar or wind power. The amount of concrete and steel in a wind-tower foundation is nothing compared with Grand Coulee or Three Gorges, and dams have an unfortunate habit of hoarding sediment and making fish, well, non-renewable.

All too true. Here in the Beautiful Pacific Northwest® we have absolute craploads of clean, green hydropower and the watermellons in Seattle keep wanting to shut the dams down because they say that they hurt the fish.

What’s supposed to replace those dams? They don’t say. Or they say “green energy.” When what is “greener” than water that was already flowing before mankind even go here?

29Victor on November 22, 2011 at 3:34 PM

You’re right, Ed. “Renewable” energy is a myth. Apparently, after God created the Heaven and Earth, he indicated that he was “finished” and He rested. In that, he had created all of the energy within our system that we will ever have. Couple that with the law of thermodynamics that states that energy can’t be either created nor destroyed (nor renewed), it can only be transformed from one form to another (ie; chemical energy in gasoline into mechanical energy + heat).

great post.

ted c on November 22, 2011 at 3:35 PM

It’s clearly not about the environment. It’s about political control of energy, and thus the control of everything.

wb-33777 on November 22, 2011 at 3:26 PM

BINGO!

Mirimichi on November 22, 2011 at 3:36 PM

What about wind power? That requires an awful lot of steel, concrete, and less-ubiquitous items like rare-earth metals, such as neodymium and dysprosium that are hard to find and harder to extract —

Well, we could use hopenchangium, and then if that runs out, we can shift to unobtainium.

BobMbx on November 22, 2011 at 3:40 PM

They also don’t last very long. The sun degrades the panels so that they put out 40% less electricity after the first year.

Ah! Put them in the shade.

Next problem please…..

BobMbx on November 22, 2011 at 3:43 PM

Nothing is more renewable than natural gas. It is made in huge volume continuously wherever calcareous rock (limestone) is crushed in the presence of iron-bearing rock (ie, igneous rock) and water, which is to say, every subduction zone planet-wide.

Chaz on November 22, 2011 at 3:44 PM

I stood at the newly refurbished Pearl Brewery in San Antonio last week. It has undergone some “green” transformation which amounts to the installation of a bevy of solar panels on its roof. They have this cool dashboard that shows the current energy draw for the place which was about 130Kw. At 4pm in the afternoon on a sunny day, the solar panels were putting out a whopping 3 Kw and the grid supplied the other 127Kw. I figured there was about 3000-5000sqft of panels from what I could see from the ground. I guess in order to power the place on solar alone they’d need at least ?130,000sqft of coverage to meet demand.

ted c on November 22, 2011 at 3:45 PM

How about dams and hydropower?

How about the fish, you despicable despoiler of Mother Gaia!!!

The breaching eliminates the dam’s power generation, enough to supply about 7,000 homes.

Rebar on November 22, 2011 at 3:46 PM

If the market and not the government dictated shifts in energy sources none of this nonsense would be happening. But until we have a truly FREE market and a truly LIMITED government, we’ll just keep throwing tax dollars and consumer dollars at inefficient political pipe dreams.

cartooner on November 22, 2011 at 3:50 PM

OT – if you are going to fry your turkey this year, beware!
William Shatner has a special message for you.

bloggless on November 22, 2011 at 3:57 PM

Just think of how much more of this “green”we will get if Obama is reelected.

docflash on November 22, 2011 at 4:03 PM

Nothing is more renewable than natural gas. It is made in huge volume continuously wherever calcareous rock (limestone) is crushed in the presence of iron-bearing rock (ie, igneous rock) and water, which is to say, every subduction zone planet-wide.

Chaz on November 22, 2011 at 3:44 PM

Contrary to popular belief, crude oil as fossil fuel is not a settled issue. The argument between biogenic and abiogenic is still alive. If petroleum is truly abiogenic, then it IS a “renewable” resource.

cartooner on November 22, 2011 at 4:13 PM

Definitely need to build the Keystone pipeline.
Besides, if the Canadians ever gave us any trouble, the North Dakota National Guard could take over the whole country- for one of their weekend drills (Just kidding, Canadians!)

michaelo on November 22, 2011 at 4:29 PM

Nothing is more renewable than natural gas. It is made in huge volume continuously wherever calcareous rock (limestone) is crushed in the presence of iron-bearing rock (ie, igneous rock) and water, which is to say, every subduction zone planet-wide.

Chaz on November 22, 2011 at 3:44 PM

Contrary to popular belief, crude oil as fossil fuel is not a settled issue. The argument between biogenic and abiogenic is still alive. If petroleum is truly abiogenic, then it IS a “renewable” resource.

cartooner on November 22, 2011 at 4:13 PM

I am with you on oil being renewable.

Dasher on November 22, 2011 at 4:30 PM

Every trope of the green movement is misleading. For example, the idea that we can preserve nature. Nature itself is continuously eroding the planet and changing itself. Nothing is truly pristine. It’s like trying freeze a dynamic system like a river.

Man isn’t destroying nature. Man is continually striving to make the world more comfortable and useful for himself. That’s what all creatures do. If we stop striving to maintain the things we’ve built, nature takes over and they begin to decay or break down. Wilderness is what happens when you quit mowing your law, fixing your roof and painting your house.

flataffect on November 22, 2011 at 4:32 PM

Why not build a refinery in Montana? By the time we build a pipe line across the country and the pump houses and power necessary to move the oil that far it seems to me that a refinery would be the better bet.

mixplix on November 22, 2011 at 4:41 PM

A person would be extremely naive to believe that we can run an economy the size of the United States on Sun and Wind power. Bio fuel derived from corn is going to be competing with our crops for food so there’s that.

Dr Evil on November 22, 2011 at 4:57 PM

Ah! Put them in the shade.

Next problem please…..

BobMbx on November 22, 2011 at 3:43 PM

You made the bits of the carrot I’m munching on shoot up into my nose. Hope you’re happy.

29Victor on November 22, 2011 at 5:27 PM

I am going to plant a new row of batteries for my next battery car … At the same I am keeping a sharp eye on my pile of dust that was last years wood pi;e and see if it renews.

tarpon on November 22, 2011 at 5:46 PM

When taking “green” and “clean”, just follow the $cience$igns.

GarandFan on November 22, 2011 at 3:23 PM

Works that way, too.

tom on November 22, 2011 at 5:57 PM

5,350 geothermal plants

I wonder how many we could fit in Yellowstone.

Count to 10 on November 22, 2011 at 6:26 PM

Contrary to popular belief, crude oil as fossil fuel is not a settled issue. The argument between biogenic and abiogenic is still alive. If petroleum is truly abiogenic, then it IS a “renewable” resource.

cartooner on November 22, 2011 at 4:13 PM

That wouldn’t change the production rate, which would still be too slow to matter much.

Count to 10 on November 22, 2011 at 6:30 PM

I still don’t quite understand why lightning can’t be used as a power source. Sure, it’s random, but it’s always striking somewhere.

lorien1973 on November 22, 2011 at 3:10 PM

A couple of links:

link 1

link 2

JimC on November 22, 2011 at 7:08 PM

Redstate carried this article today: Dutch fall out of love with windmills

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/11/16/us-dutch-wind-idUSTRE7AF1JM20111116

It seems that sea based windturbines cost a little bit more and the land based ones are being fought against and the government can’t pick up the subsidy no more.

journeyintothewhirlwind on November 22, 2011 at 7:15 PM

If liberals had been running things during the Stone Age, the human race would still be sitting in caves, terrified of the ever-impending “Flint Shortage.” And eventually that prediction would be self-fulfilling.
logis on November 22, 2011 at 3:08 PM

That’s not that far off from today’s realities. We just blew a half billion because Obama feared we were going to run out of dirt. Silicone makes up 27.7% of the earths crust (dirt) Solyndra was rushed through allegedly because of a world wide shortage of silicone (dirt).

DSchoen on November 22, 2011 at 10:57 PM

I still don’t quite understand why lightning can’t be used as a power source. Sure, it’s random, but it’s always striking somewhere.

lorien1973 on November 22, 2011 at 3:10 PM

Just like wind and sun. Intermittent and undependable, hence impractical.

But of course, for libs, that’s beside the point.

petefrt on November 23, 2011 at 6:58 AM

But of course, for libs, that’s beside the point.

petefrt on November 23, 2011 at 6:58 AM

The point is this:

It’s clearly not about the environment. It’s about political control of energy, and thus the control of everything.

wb-33777 on November 22, 2011 at 3:26 PM

petefrt on November 23, 2011 at 7:14 AM

blink on November 23, 2011 at 2:02 PM
It has to be converted to to AC, there will a loss. it sounds like a good idea but aint really going to happen. There are people that talk about the aurora borialis.
that wont happen either but SOUNDS Good.

ColdWarrior57 on November 23, 2011 at 4:09 PM