Energy Aware #2: There is No Clean, Cheap Energy
There is no clean, cheap energy.
Clean energy requires materials that use energy for their extraction, transport, manufacture and distribution. That includes the steel, cement, and batteries for wind turbines and electric vehicles. We don’t know how to do any of that without using fossil fuels.
That seriously complicates the popular idea that fossil fuels can be replaced by renewable energy.
The use of energy inevitably rearranges additional materials in the environment. This posits a problem that goes beyond the carbon content and specific material requirements of given technologies, and thus cannot be solved through energy substitution.Leiva and Schramski (2022)
Many believe that nuclear power is important for decreasing reliance on fossil fuels for electric power. That is partly because an operating nuclear power plant emits almost no carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. This ignores the energy and emissions that go into the components and construction of a nuclear plant.
It is wrong to ignore the use of fossil fuels in the construction (and ultimate decommissioning) of the power plant as well as the mining, milling, transport and eternal storage of nuclear material. To this must be added the fossil fuels used in the building of the array of machinery to make nukes possible and the disruption of aquatic ecosystems from the emptying of hot water.”Don Fitz (2019)
It takes energy to produce solar panels. This includes mining the raw materials and transporting them to a factory. Most of that work is done with diesel.
A solar cell is made of silicon. Sand, quartzite gravel or crushed quartz are melted at temperatures of 1800°C in an arc furnace. Today, most of the electric power comes from coal and natural gas. The resulting silicon dioxide is then treated with phosphorous and boron that must be mined using fossil fuels. The chemical processing of these elements also produces considerable toxic waste.
More electric power is needed to manufacture the panel. The finished product must be transported and distributed by ship, train or truck, all of which use diesel.
I am not suggesting that it takes more energy to make a solar panel than it produces. I’m simply pointing out that it is misleading to call solar energy clean.
Wind energy also has a carbon footprint. Wind turbines are made of of steel, concrete, fiberglass, copper, as well as rare earth metals.
Mining metals and rare earths is energy intensive. Making steel requires the use of metallurgical coal in blast furnaces. The manufacture of concrete emits lots of carbon dioxide.
“The biggest contributors to the carbon footprint of wind turbines are steel, aluminum and the epoxy resins that hold pieces together — with the steel tower making up 30% of the carbon impact, the concrete foundation 17% and the carbon fiber and fiberglass blades 12%.”Chris Helman, Forbes (2021)
Then, there’s the problem of disposing of worn out solar panels and turbine blades. Renewable equipment is not renewable.
Wind and Solar Aren’t As Cheap As Advertised
Low price has become the clarion call for renewable energy.
“Today, renewables are the cheapest source of power,” said IRENA’s Director-General Francesco La Camera.
Whenever I hear statements like that I ask, “What costs are included and excluded?”
La Camera’s claim is based on leveled cost estimates that compare the cost of generating electricity from different types of power plants. Leveled cost does not account for the cost of providing “backup” electricity for renewable power with natural gas or battery storage.
A recent study of leveled costs in Minnesota concluded that wind and solar are much more expensive than nuclear, coal and natural gas for electric power generation.
Those findings are consistent with net energy or EROI, an approach that calculates the amount of usable energy output from an energy source versus the amount of energy input to produce that energy resource.
Figure 2 shows that the net energy (EROI) for wind and solar PV including backup generation for periods when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. They are an order of magnitude lower than for other energy sources used in electric power generation.
Another way to look at this is to compare power densities—the measure of how much electric power can be extracted from the same unit area supplied by different energy sources.
In Figure 3, I show power density values and a comparison based on the number of energy “workers” indexed to natural gas.
It takes 176 solar workers or 470 wind workers to equal 1 natural gas worker for the same time rate of energy transfer. As in the previous examples, wind and solar compare unfavorably to natural gas, nuclear, heating oil and coal.
There is No Clean, Cheap Energy
The energy debate today is largely about whether renewable energy sources can substitute for fossil fuels in time to avert an ecological and climate catastrophe. A secondary theme is whether economic growth will continue without fossil fuels.
That’s the wrong way to think about energy and the earth. It’s not a competition between energy teams. It’s not about which energy source we think is better but instead, how the earth’s ecosystem can survive if humans don’t start using a lot less energy.
“Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know.”Vaclav Smil
No energy is clean or cheap, and earth’s future is bleak unless humans use a lot less energy.
Wind and solar energy are not clean but they are cleaner than fossil fuels. They are not cheaper and that has implications for economic growth.
What About Technology?
Technology is the deus ex machina (god from the machine) common in ancient Greek and Roman plays. Plots got so complicated that a god had come down to earth to fix everything so the story could resolve and have a happy ending.
Technology does not create energy. Instead, it is a way of extracting existing energy faster and concentrating it.
The…growing…size and scale of modern human economies…allows for new inventions and adds to social and physical complexity. This in turn requires a larger energy spigot to keep things running without recession or dislocation.DJ White and NJ Hagens, The Bottlenecks of the 21st Century: Essays on the Systems Synthesis of the Human Predicament
Technology isn’t cheap either—check the price tag on your mobile phone, roof-top solar panels, replacement EV battery or fracked shale well.
We live in a complex society that relies on energy to maintain that complexity. Nothing about a complex system is black and white. Yet, the energy debate assumes that there is some sort of black-and-white choice between fossil and renewable energy. That is not only wrong—it’s impossible.
The real deus ex machina for human civilization is biophysical and economic collapse, mass migration, civil strife and war unless we face the harsh reality that the energy consumption party is ending. History suggests, however, that we will not change our behavior until bad things start to happen in earnest.
“You have to use less because we’re in a world crisis—It’s not going to happen. The only thing will be the price.”Kiril Sokoloff, The Great Simplification (August 2022)
In the meantime, let’s at least embrace the reality that energy is not a biblical struggle between the forces of good and evil.
The problem is overshoot and population growth enabled by massive levels of energy consumption. Climate change is a result.
The earth’s problems can’t be blamed on any industry. Instead, they result from the collective behavior of the human race. The idea of clean versus dirty energy is an infantile passion play that reflects energy & reality ignorance.
Be energy aware. There is no clean, cheap energy.
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