How to exacerbate a fossil-fuel addiction

Start with oddball renewable energy targets

November 01, 2010

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Consider this oddball energy scheme. A tree is cut down in British Columbia with a diesel-fueled chainsaw. The trunk is transported on a truck, also running on diesel, to a sawmill. An automated production line makes a load of woodchips for a 5,000-kilometer delivery by diesel train or truck to an East Coast port.

Then more fossil fuel-burning transportation machinery ships the chips across the Atlantic Ocean and Europe to a power plant which is mandated to produce 20 per cent renewable energy. These wood chips are officially considered carbon neutral and the energy they produce is called clean.

It’s being done because under current regulations it makes sense economically. But as a way to attain environmental goals that inspire policies like the 20 per cent renewable energy requirement, it is a disaster. Not only is the wood-chip scheme far from carbon neutral, it is not going to improve energy security and only deepens the dependence on the fossil fuels it is supposed to replace.

This is precisely the problem with using economics as the underlying philosophy to solve the energy problem, says David Fridley. He is a learned fellow of the Post Carbon Institute who delivered a startling reality check – a paper titled “Nine Challenges of Alternative Energy” – to the fall 21st World Energy Congress in Montreal.

“One thing that struck me going to all these conferences with these so-called energy experts is that these experts are actually market experts – they are completely rooted in finance and there’s very little actual discussion or reference to these physical limits and the laws of thermodynamics,” says the scholar from California. “There seems to be this feeling that money is some magical thing that makes all things happen. This completely ignores the reality that the inputs to everything are energy and materials and resources.”

The idea that it is cash rather than physical forces that make the world go around is a construct of the dismal science – economics, as opposed to physical science – that plagues advocates of alternative energy as much as supporters of the fossil fuel status quo. This currently standard approach does not have a straightforward focus on energy types. But considering money as an input and energy as an output, in economic and policy models, leads to quirks like that delivery of B.C. woodchips to burn in European power plants.

The first casualty of a diesel vehicle factory strike in the U.K. was a Scottish wind farm. Fridley explains why. “You say for a million dollars I can build a wind farm – well, not really. For a thousand tonnes of coal and for the thousands of tonnes of overburden that you removed with a diesel-powered excavator, and for the energy used to smelt that ore into metal, and for the diesel used to transport it – then you can have a wind farm. It is not a million dollars; a million dollars is just a human fabrication.”

Fridley has been a scientist at the energy analysis program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the past 15 years. His paper tackles some of the more complicated issues involved in choosing an alternative energy path. Not the least of these is the realization that all alternative energy, besides the direct use of sunlight for growing food or heat, is currently based on fossil fuels.

“There is not a single renewable energy form in the world that doesn’t rely on fossil energy for its existence,” he says. “Until those energy forms can be reproduced using their own outputs, I don’t really see them as substitutes. I see them as extenders of fossil fuels because they are all founded on the basis of fossil fuels.”

Of nine challenges that he describes, one of the biggest is the dependence of renewable energy technology on non-renewable natural resources such as the lithium used to produce car batteries or the rare earths used in LED lights, magnets on windmills and PV panels. Switching energy forms just means trading dependence on Middle Eastern oil for reliance on lithium from Bolivia or Chinese rare earths. China saw its opportunity and has curtailed exports of rare earths in order to force the alternative energy equipment industry to locate there.

Fridley also discusses the scalability and density – the potential size and power – of current alternative energy sources. All energy is ultimately solar, he says. Fossil fuels are sunlight captured millions of years ago and converted by the Earth’s own processes into a very dense form of energy. Humanity stumbled onto that stock of energy and harnessed it.

Looking ahead, it is necessary to realize that this fossil fuel inventory is going to be used up and that the next energy sources will be much more diffuse and less reliable. To obtain as much energy from a solar or a wind farm as a coal plant provides will require facilities sprawling over tens or even hundreds of times as much land.

Another aspect of neoclassical economics that Fridley challenges is the concept of substitutability. Economists use a model where the cost of fossil fuel rises until it hits a level where renewable energy sources become competitive. This market phenomenon, in theory, leads to a smooth evolutionary switch into renewable energy sources. They have a flat price level because their supply does not diminish.

This cheery outlook is wrong, Fridley says. Every renewable energy form has fossil fuel as an input. As the oil price rises, so does the cost of wind power or biomass.

“We are moving into a situation where the population of the Earth is exceeding the carrying capacity of the Earth and we no longer have unlimited and cheap supplies of energy and resources,” he says. “Neoclassical economics can’t really deal with that situation very well because the idea of neoclassical economics is basically infinite substitutability. That is not really grounded in physics. We are beginning to see these contradictions now of the world that we face and the guiding philosophy of those in power.”

Patrycja Romanowska is a former Alberta Oil associate editor and Alberta-trained economist currently working in Poland.

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One Response to “How to exacerbate a fossil-fuel addiction”

  1. Mike Mellor says:

    It seems that Malthus is not dead. Mr. Fridley has just brought him back to life. There are no limits to natural resources. Every time a limit has been proposed, it has later been proved to be an imaginary limit. The only limit is the power of thought and so far that seems to be limitless.

    Sooner or later, fossil fuel will run out, but it will run out later rather than sooner. By then, advanced energy sources will have been developed to replace fossil fuels: safe nuclear, fusion, and the recycling of carbon out of the atmosphere directly into methane. The ancient technologies that the renewables people are wasting so much time and money on, are thousands of years old, and they’re already as efficient as they’re going to get. In the meantime, stick to cheap and reliable fossil fuels.