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Renewable Energy: Or is it?

by Guy McCardle

June 3, 2011

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Donate I read an interesting article today that first appeared in the May 21st edition of The Wall Street Journal. It was all about what the word "renewable" really means in reference to energy. I'll attempt to summarize it here.

A couple weeks ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released their report on the future of renewable energy which they defined as solar, hydro, wind, tidal, wave, geothermal and biomass. Currently these sources meet 13.8% of our energy needs. Most of this energy (10.2% of the 13.8% total) comes from biomass. The majority of this biomass is wood (in the form of charcoal) and dung. Almost all of the rest of the energy is in the form of hydroelectrically generated power. The remainder, only 0.5% of renewable power sources, comes from wind, tide, wave, solar and geothermal combined.

Here is the part where you have to pay attention to the concept a little bit. Wood and dung are renewable in the sense that they reappear at the same rate that we use them. Well, actually it all depends on how quickly we use them. Take for example the island nation of Haiti. They currently meet 60% of their energy needs with charcoal produced from forests. Rain forests. Everything from home wood stoves to large rum distilleries are operated on the power generated by wood-based products. Al Gore just has to love Haiti and how they are leading the way to a cleaner, greener future! Should he?

Haiti has stripped 98% of its tree cover and continues to deforest the remainder on a daily basis. What about their heavily fossil fuel dependent neighbor, the Dominican Republic, on the other half of the island? How are they faring? Turns out their forest cover is 41% and stable while the Haitians have turned to burning tree roots to make charcoal.

Lets look for a minute at the wind industry. The wind may never stop blowing in some places, but the industry uses tons of steel, concrete and rare-earth metals (for making magnets). None of these items are renewable. Currently, wind only generates 0.2% of the worlds supply of power. If we were to assume that our energy needs will roughly double in the coming decades we would have to build approximately 100 times the number of wind plants that we have now just to produce 10% of the world's power.

Most experts would agree that iron ore, used to make steel, will not run out any time soon. The same could be said of fossil fuels. All depends on what you definition of "soon" is. The sum of all the hydrocarbons in the earth's crust equals more than half a million exajoules of energy. The whole of the earth uses about 500 exajoules per year currently. This gives us a 1000 year supply of fossil fuels. Your mileage may vary.

Consider the animal kingdom for a second. Animals such as passenger pigeons, bison and snail darters all renewed their populations by breeding. But something went wrong. Exploitation greatly reduced, or in the case of the passenger pigeon, totally eliminated their populations over the course of decades. These "renewable" resources have been depleted where finite resources like gold, coal, oil and uranium have yet to run out. Former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani is attributed with saying that "the stone age did not end for lack of stone".

A certain kind of guano made from seabird dung collected from Peruvian and Namibian islands was an excellent fertilizer in the 19th century, until it ran out. Today's synthetic fertilizer is made from the components of air and returns back to air via the actions of denitrifying bacteria. Few, however, would consider this to be a renewable resource. If we really stretch the imagination we could make the case that fossil fuels are renewable in the sense that they are still being laid down throughout the world. If we let them percolate for a few million years the oil would be there for us. Much like the Haitians with their wood or the bison of the Old West, our demand is outstripping the supply.

Last but not least we have nuclear power. I don't claim to be a nuclear scientist, but I do know that uranium is not renewable and plutonium is, at least in the sense that you can "breed" it in a reactor. Given the unpopularity of plutonium and breeder reactors one might assume that the more renewable a nuclear fuel is, the less we like it.

Once you stop and look at the situation with a critical eye, the more the whole idea that renewable energy is clean and green just seems like a bunch of woo. Sorry Al.

by Guy McCardle

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