Sunday, March 24, 2013

Life after Oil and Gas: Pity Earth’s Creatures

Today’s New York Times Sunday Review juxtaposed two pieces on its front page: Elisabeth Rosenthal’s puff piece (last gasp?) for large-scale renewable energy, “Life After Oil and Gas”, and Edward Hoagland’s lamentation about nature’s disappearance under the march of human civilization, “Pity Earth’s Creatures”.

Hoagland’s piece stands as the answer to Rosenthal’s.

Except for some comments by International Energy Agency economist Fatih Birol suggesting that conservation and efficiency are more practical and effective choices, Rosenthal hardly considers why we have an energy crisis, of consequences as much as supply. (She also ignores, of course, the fact that huge investments in wind and solar have never been documented to actually reduce the use of other fuels. And both Rosenthal and Birol ignore the fact that countries and states that produce a high percentage of their electricity from wind are actually on larger grids, which make the percentage very much less.)

Instead Rosenthal assumes that we can “easily” produce the power we need from wind, solar, and water, citing the latest work of Mark Jacobson, whose numbers should frighten rather than inspire:

For New York State alone: 4,020 onshore and 12,770 offshore 5-MW wind turbines, 387 100-MW concentrated solar plants, 828 50-MW PV solar plants, 5,000,000 5-kW home and 500,000 100-kW business rooftop PV solar systems, 36 100-MW geothermal plants, 1,910 0.75-MW wave systems, 2,600 1-MW tidal turbines, as well as 7 1,300-MW hydro plants (half of which already exists).

Except for the rooftop solar, where do these go? Where do all the new “smart-grid” power lines and substations go? Where do all the materials to build and maintain and replace all these things come from? And what if these projections fall short (as they most certainly would)?

Except for rare hydro sources like Niagara Falls (or geothermal sources like Iceland’s volcanoes), renewable energy sources are diffuse. Therefore they require sprawling facilities of huge devices to collect enough to meet even a fraction of our electricity needs, let alone all of our energy (i.e., including transportation, heating, and manufacturing).

Furthermore, wind and solar are intermittent: The wind isn’t always blowing, and the sun shines only during the day. On top of that, their energy is variable, wildly so, in the case of wind. That means they need 100% backup.

Jacobson’s vision has already been imagined by H.G. Wells. In his 1897 “A Story of the Days To Come”, he described “the Wind Vane and Waterfall Trust, the great company that owned every wind wheel and waterfall in the world, and which pumped all the water and supplied all the electric energy that people in these latter days required.”
Far away, spiked, jagged and indented by the wind vanes, the Surrey Hills rose blue and faint; to the north and nearer, the sharp contours of Highgate and Muswell Hill were similarly jagged. And all over the countryside, he knew, on every crest and hill, where once the hedges had interlaced, and cottages, churches, inns, and farmhouses had nestled among their trees, wind wheels similar to those he saw and bearing like vast advertisements, gaunt and distinctive symbols of the new age, cast their whirling shadows and stored incessantly the energy that flowed away incessantly through all the arteries of the city. ...

To the east and south the great circular shapes of complaining wind-wheels blotted out the heavens ...
Where is nature in all this? Where is the countryside? Jacobson’s vision would turn it all into a power plant for the cities, and mines and refineries for endlessly building that power plant. There would be no escape. No nature to marvel at and lose oneself in. No nature to be left alone to live its own lives. Only the vain hand of human expansion.

As Hoagland writes in the other piece, we have already lost so much, as 7 billion people (doubled since 1970, tripled since 1940) trample over and push aside the world of other lives. The dream of renewables, which are inherently inefficient, only expands that process. If we would decry what we have already done to the earth, we need to start doing with a lot less. But the reality of renewables is that their use not only allows but requires more use of fossil and nuclear fuels, more extraction of resources, more paving over paradise.

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