energy: the drop-in fallacy
June 4, 2011
I've just been reading Guy's post about Renewable Energy, and generally agree with most of the points. I have ideas for several posts on the topic of Energy, but for starters I'd like to address something that affects how many people are approaching the problem. (To folks based in the USA: I'm writing from Europe (Ireland), and have little interest in the politics surrounding these issues in your country. Your usual "left/right" labels don't apply to me - something I hope you'll consider before commenting! 8) )When people think about the end of cheap fossil fuels, renewable energy sources are often touted as "drop-in" or "turnkey" replacements for fossil fuels. For example, cars running on liquid fuels will continue to run on liquid fuels, from renewable sources. Aircraft will continue to fly, in the same numbers as today, on renewables. Electricity generation from fossil fuels will be replaced by electricity from renewable supplies. This appears to be the expectation, but I don't think it's going to happen that way; it seems to me that much of the debate and friction arises where such expectations aren't met, or likely to be met. I'd like to start addressing these expectations from basic principles, if I can.
Sometimes the "drop-in fallacy", as I call it, is used to discredit renewable sources. "The sun doesn't shine at night", they say, or "the wind doesn't blow all the time". Which is true, and it means that neither wind nor sun alone will provide "base load", the minimum energy required day or night. When combined with variable hydro-electric power, we can see the potential of a system that meets people's needs day or night: sun and wind when available, and hydro to take up the slack.
It's not quite as simple as that, however. Hydro-electric capacity is a problem, and that will continue to be the case; not unless many more dams are built, but even then dams can't be built everywhere. There are no suitable sites near London or Los Angeles, for example, so electricity has to be transmitted long-distance, incurring major energy losses along the way. It's not enough to generate electricity; you have to get it to where people use it. This is not a new problem, and it applies to fossil fuels too: the gasoline doesn't come straight from a hole in the ground to the pump.
What's the answer to the "drop-in" fallacy? Can we handle the possibility that we're not going to find a turnkey replacement for all our current energy supplies? I've spoken to people who seem to think that we can carry on as we are, until a day comes when we can't; at that point all bets are off anyway, and society will collapse. That's one scenario, but another is that energy will simply become more expensive. Then even more expensive. Then much more expensive.
What to do? The drop-in fallacy tends to make people focus on the supply side of the energy picture, and diverts attention from the amount of energy used, where it goes, and how efficiently. I could go on about this - and might do in another post - but all I'll say at this point is that it's in our obvious interests to reduce our energy usage, for whatever reason, whether it's in the car, or the home, or when working and travelling. Not because Al Gore says so, not because of "global warming" or "climate change", not because of corporations or foreign governments - at least not directly. - but for economic reasons: money. It's going to hit you in the pocket, and hard. I may be a skeptic, but all the signs are pointing towards a long-term increase in energy costs; when that happens, the "why" will be irrelevant, and politics will not offer any solutions. In my humble opinion, that is.
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