Clean energy won’t save the world!

To listen to President Obama, you would think that clean energy is our next salvation. But clean energy can’t exist on its own. Clean energy options should more properly be called “fossil fuel extenders”. They only work within a system that has fossil fuels.

We can’t make solar PV panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels, and we can’t move them to their new sites and install them without fossil fuels. Many solar panels are made in China, and wind turbines often include overseas components (or are made overseas). If grid tied solar PV is installed without back-up batteries, it won’t work when the grid isn’t working.

Even corn ethanol is a fossil fuel extender. Corn is planted, harvested and transported using vehicles that use oil, and of course the finished product is mixed with petroleum products. Fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides also use petrochemicals, and ethanol plants are usually powered with natural gas or coal.

Wind turbines are only about 2% of US electrical production, and solar PV is well under 1%. Why aren’t school children and adults told about where our electricity comes from? The biggest source is coal, followed by natural gas. Nuclear is a very close third after natural gas.

Figure 1. US electric generation since 1970 in Btus, based on EIA data

Our electrical system needs oil, too. Most of the workers get to work in cars; maintenance of transmission lines needs to be done using vehicles; replacement parts need be transported using vehicles powered by oil; oil is needed for lubrication.

Even if we had an abundant supply of electricity from wind and solar, that electricity wouldn’t run today’s cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats. They run on petroleum products, except for a very few electrical powered vehicles. The electrical vehicles we are looking to use to replace current vehicles use lithium, which is an imported product (requiring oil for transport). Sources are limited, and leave us open to some of the same issues of supply interruption as oil.

More important than taking about clean energy is talking about using less fossil fuel energy, especially petroleum products, through buying smaller vehicles, carpooling and using public transportation. Saving electricity or natural gas through insulation and sealing cracks is helpful too, but doesn’t help our liquid fuel problem.

Taxing oil companies is a popular subject, but it is worthwhile thinking this through. Will doing this reduce the amount of oil that they pump, because fields that were at one time economic, are no longer economic? An example that is often given is all of the stripper wells that we have in the United States. They are typically owned by very small companies or individuals, rather than big oil companies. Together, they pump something like 900,000 barrels of oil a day out of the 5.5 million barrels a day of oil we are now pumping. These wells would likely not be profitable with higher taxes. They would just be closed. There are no doubt fields that big companies have in production that are marginal as well. Higher taxes might very well push the oil companies to close them.

Why not just import more? One issue is whether we really can. Imports have been declining since 2005, because world oil supply has remained flat, and because of more competition from China, India, and the oil exporting countries. It is nice to think that OPEC will supply more oil if we need it, but there is little evidence they can really raise their production by several million barrels of oil a day. Despite their promises, they haven’t done so to date, now or back in 2008, when prices were very high.

Whether we like it our not, we need petroleum products. If we don’t have them, we need to plan for a very different world. Rather than talking about clean energy, perhaps it would be worthwhile talking about what the world would look like with much less, or no, petroleum products. We have had an abundance of fossil fuel products in the last 200 years, but this will not continue forever.

Another thing we need to do is think through is what our economic system would look like with less oil. The oil intensity of the US economy has been declining by a shade over 2% per year. Even if this rate of improvement continues, we cannot expect the US economy to keep growing, if oil consumption (including imports) declines by a greater percentage, roughly 2% a year. Declines of greater than 2% a year in oil consumption seem quite possible–we experienced them in the recent recession. We need to think through what we need to do to change our economy, so that it can handle year to year declines in both oil consumption and economic growth.

President Obama, why don’t you start talking straight to the American people? Start telling the story as it is. Quit sugar coating the “clean energy” story. There is a very significant chance our oil imports will continue to decline from their 2005 peak in the near future, and we really haven’t prepared for this eventuality. There aren’t easy answers, but telling the truth would be a start in the right direction.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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26 Responses to Clean energy won’t save the world!

  1. jstack6 says:

    OIL has been subsidized for over 30 years, we also subsidize COAL , Natural Gas and Nuclear. Solar still competes with all of them and provides clean , renewable energy for years.

    How can you run a cola plant without refuling for more than a day or two, how can you run a Nuclear plant with out refueling every 18 months. We have 104 Nuclear plants in the US and import 95% of the uranium to run them.

    Try to run COAL, NG or Nuclear without water. Try no to dumpo power from COAL or Nuclear at Off Peaks when they can’t be rampped down or up in time for the next day.

    Get the facts, all the facts.

  2. Haraldo says:

    Will it ever be possible to convert from fossil energy to renewable energy?

    When oil starts to declining, it may fall approximately 3% each year. If gas and coal also soon are peaking, the energy produced by fossil sources may be assumed to decline by a similar rate. Since the fossil contributes to most of the worlds energy productions, total energy available will decline by 2-3%, each year.

    So, they says the alternative is renewable like solar, wind, waves, bio etc. If renewable shall replace, the world will need to replace the fossil energy decline of 2-3% by some sort of renewable to maintain the same energy production.

    How much energy will need to invested to convert to these new energy plants? From finance we know it takes several years to pay back the an economical investment, say 10-15 years. The “energy pay back period” will be of similar length. This will imply that to replace the global fossil decline of 2-3% to renewable, an energy investment of magnitude 20-45% of the global fossil energy usage will need to reallocated in building these new plants!

    How on earth will it be possible to reallocate such vast amounts of energy in building these plants. This energy must be taken from existing usage like heating, production, food transports, leisure etc. It will be an impossible political task to reallocate such vast amounts of energy.

    The above numbers, rates and maths are mostly mine assumptions. I have search in various peak oil forums for similar calculations and ideas, but not found any yet. However, from my point of view, if the above numbers and maths are not to far from the truth, conversion from fossil to renewable energy production will be impossible. If a global economical growth also is required, the energy investment will be even bigger.

    Has any seen such similar calculations? Please comment.

    • I know people make the claim that renewables can offset the decline in oil, but this seems totally impossible to me too. It would probably be worthwhile to work out the mathematics to show how ridiculous the idea is. It doesn’t make sense now, and as the supply of oil gets lower, it will make less and less sense, because as far as I can see, you can’t make renewables from renewables, so they are nothing but a dead end. I would be interested in whether anyone else has worked through the details. Thanks for suggesting the idea.

      I know Scientific American had a ridiculous article in November 2009, and I wrote a post going through on an item by item basis explaining that what they were proposing wouldn’t work. But they were actually trying to replace current fuels with renewables–something easier to debunk.

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