The problem with renewable energy

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  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 03:05pm

    #1
    switters

    switters

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    The problem with renewable energy

Pedro Pietro gave an excellent presentation at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) conference which is happening right now.  He made the following very important point:

"…what we call Renewable Energies today are in fact non-renewable systems capturing renewable energy. The renewable infrastructure being built uses a great deal of fossil fuel inputs that need to be taken in account."

This is absolutely crucial to understand and unfortunately it is left out of almost every discussion of renewable energy that I see.  All of the technologies and infrastructure we use to capture, generate and distribute renewable energy is dependent upon dwindling fossil fuel resources (primarily oil).  Some people refer to this as the "oil subsidy" that renewable energy production depends upon.  

Pietro makes another important point:

"…we won’t make the transition away from fossil fuels by simply concentrating on electricity generation. Some sectors are still heavily reliant on fossil fuel products (e.g. Transport, Mining) and industries like Wind in turn rely heavily on these fossil-fuel dependent industries."

Renewable energy generates electricity, not liquid fuel.  However, generating this electricity from renewable sources is highly dependent upon liquid fuels. "Alternative" liquid fuels like biofuels and hydrogen (which is an energy storage medium, not a fuel) are right now dependent upon oil for their production.

What we have is a vicious cycle of alternatives that are all currently dependent to some degree or another on a quickly depleting, non-renewable resource – oil.  This is why it is almost certain that the future will be less energy-dense than it is today, and why many of the the optimistic projections about renewables that are bandied about in the media and on internet forums are unlikely to be realized.

The entire cycle of energy generation must be considered in the EROEI calculations, or they are worthless.

  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 04:09pm

    #2

    mainecooncat

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

You’ve cast a little and much needed light on what I call the "Oil as pixie dust" cunundrum. There’s simply no escaping oil’s pervasiveness in our lives.

  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 05:23pm

    #3

    joe bender

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

thanks for the post switters.

that is why our current financial meltdown is such a tragedy.

the money that could be used  for the development of alternative sources is being urinated away.

i recently attended a sustainablity summit. and there was much discussion about alternative fuels.

it appears that the only viable replacement is algae. it is the closest to the energy from the sun.

but it still needs huge inputs of oil to get off the ground. one good thing about it is you can also get 

plastics from it. but all in all i am not encouraged with the way  our current energy issues are being handled.

at the moment the best solution is to conserve as much as we can as per amory lovins and rmi.

i have watched the debates and listened to obama and mccain and have yet to hear the term peak oil mentioned.

the dialog is all about getting off middle east oil, yet that is an impossibility. 

so i guess we should all emigrate to dubai……….as jim rogers suggests

  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 07:53pm

    #4
    Akrotiri21

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

 

I certainly agree that EROEI is a required consideration.  Charles Hall’s posts on various sources at TOD are sobering, even if some of his conclusions are very preliminary and some are contested (I recall the nuclear numbers in particular being subject to widely different assessments; see for example Charles Barton’s comments on his site for some healthy skepticism).  And I can’t argue that we will need huge oil imputs to get a renewable infrastructure off the ground.  But don’t we still have that?  And isn’t the good (ok, maybe better) news delivered by PO that we are not running out of oil — there’s plenty of it — just not so much that it will still be cheap in light of exploding demand?  A quick look at Hutter’s compilation of 23 scenarios suggests that in 2075 — a good 68 years away — flow rates will still be at 60-70mbd range (predictions are all over the place, but this seems a fair gloss of most, tho I see that Campbell breaks far from the crowd and comes in at around 20mbd).  If the 60-70 figure is roughly right, don’t we have a long time to get to a point where we use a lot less oil?  Wouldn’t we in fact want to be using less than this amount well before then?

Just stepping back a bit, I have (before these posts) been less worried about whether we are energy intensive or not and more about whether we can have enough (dare I say "more than enough") energy for sustainable, happy lives (for all of us).  But I sense in other comments that "energy intensive" is considered to be intrinsically related to economic growth (and maybe environmental degradation) and therefore less energy intensive is required for a future in which fewer of us live  well.  Is this correct?  And if so, does energy intensity and economic growth/environmental degradation have to go together?

And just to be transparent, I don’t ask rhetoric questions and I don’t do sarcasm on the internet (it too oftens sails wide).  I really am trying to puzzle my way through this — and I’m grateful for the responses I’ve gotten so far. 

  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 08:33pm

    #5
    switters

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=Akrotiri21]

 

I certainly agree that EROEI is a required consideration.  Charles Hall’s posts on various sources at TOD are sobering, even if some of his conclusions are very preliminary and some are contested (I recall the nuclear numbers in particular being subject to widely different assessments; see for example Charles Barton’s comments on his site for some healthy skepticism).  And I can’t argue that we will need huge oil imputs to get a renewable infrastructure off the ground.  But don’t we still have that?  And isn’t the good (ok, maybe better) news delivered by PO that we are not running out of oil — there’s plenty of it — just not so much that it will still be cheap in light of exploding demand?  A quick look at Hutter’s compilation of 23 scenarios suggests that in 2075 — a good 68 years away — flow rates will still be at 60-70mbd range (predictions are all over the place, but this seems a fair gloss of most, tho I see that Campbell breaks far from the crowd and comes in at around 20mbd).  If the 60-70 figure is roughly right, don’t we have a long time to get to a point where we use a lot less oil?  Wouldn’t we in fact want to be using less than this amount well before then?[/quote]

As you point out, there are widely varying estimates on depletion rates once peak hits.  Those estimates depend upon a large number of variables that can’t be predicted in advance.  For example, it’s hard to factor in the effects of a terrorist attack on major production facilities and/or another war in the Middle East.  That said, I’ve seen estimates in a range between 2.5% and 9% a year (as Chris pointed out, the recent IEA report before it was amended suggested the number would be 9% without $300+ billion investment).

If we take 5% as a mean, in 10 years we’d have 50% less oil production than we do now.  Since we’re currently producing 84mbd, that means we’d hav only 42mbd per day by that time.  The problem, of course, is that demand will increase during that time because of India and China.  Both of these opposing factors will contribute to the supply gap / shortage.

Unconventionals like tar sands, oil shale, etc. may make up some of the difference, but again we need large amounts of conventional crude to get that stuff out and as conventional gets more expensive the EROEI of those unconventionals becomes less and less attractive.  The same goes for all "renewable" sources of energy that depend upon non-renewable, oil intensive infrastructure to be utilized.

[quote]Just stepping back a bit, I have (before these posts) been less worried about whether we are energy intensive or not and more about whether we can have enough (dare I say "more than enough") energy for sustainable, happy lives (for all of us).  But I sense in other comments that "energy intensive" is considered to be intrinsically related to economic growth (and maybe environmental degradation) and therefore less energy intensive is required for a future in which fewer of us live  well.  Is this correct?  And if so, does energy intensity and economic growth/environmental degradation have to go together?

And just to be transparent, I don’t ask rhetoric questions and I don’t do sarcasm on the internet (it too oftens sails wide).  I really am trying to puzzle my way through this — and I’m grateful for the responses I’ve gotten so far. 

[/quote]

You cannot have economic growth without a growth in the supply of energy.  I have not seen a single economist who is taken seriously argue with that fundamental truth.

As to whether economic growth necessarily equals environmental destruction, those who advocate for "sustainable growth" or "green development" would say no.  However, as I pointed out in another post the phrase "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron.  There is no such thing.  Growth is inherently unsustainable on a finite planet with finite resources.  So, by definition, all growth is ultimately environmentally destructive.

The sooner we accept these basic tenets and begin to restructure our civilization accordingly, the better off we’ll be in the future.  The heartbreaking and tragic reality that is just too difficult for most of us to face (myself included at times) is that billions of people are going to die during this transition and there will be a lot of pain and suffering along the way for those who do make it.

On the other hand, I truly believe that the way of life we will be forced to live in the future will be more rewarding and satisfying for nearly everybody.  Those of us alive now may not live to see that time, but I am committed to working towards it nonetheless.

  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 10:59pm

    #6
    srbarbour

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote]

"…what we call Renewable Energies today are in fact non-renewable
systems capturing renewable energy. The renewable infrastructure being
built uses a great deal of fossil fuel inputs that need to be taken in
account."

[/quote]

Wow, really!

Heres how it works:

When renewable energy resources make up 0% of the total energy system. It is inherent that all renewable energy sources must be built with non-renewable energy.

When renewable energy resources make up 100% of the total energy system. It is inherent that all renewable energy sources must be built with only renewable energy.

We can therefore conclude, that every time we increase the renewable proportion of all produced energy, that the amount of renewable energy used in the production of all future renewable energy sources will likewise increase. This relationship may not, however, be directly proportional.

We can also conclude, that while our proportion of renewable energy remains relatively small, that any derision or silliness that questions that non-renewable energy is being used to produce our new renewable energy sources, is itself silly and perhaps deserving of some derision.

At least, that is, until the proportion of renewable energy as compared to all energy is sufficiently high (30-60% would be a good starting number). At which point such things may deserve discussion.

A long story short, this is not the time to be concerned about what type of energy is being used to produce our renewable energy. Instead, we should focus primarily on increasing the percentage of our energy that is renewable. If the production systems and infrastructure does not follow when the percentage of all energy that is renewable has become high. Then and only then does a push to force those production systems to ‘all renewable’ deserve merit.

To be frank, I don’t think such a push is, or will be necessary. There are plenty of technologies to supplement nearly every peice of the infastructure… provided of course, that there already is renewable energy available!

These technologies will, however, never gain ground until these energy resources have already made deep penetration into our economic system.

Steve

  • Fri, Oct 31, 2008 - 11:28pm

    #7

    EndGamePlayer

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

I’m casting a big objection to the cost effectiveness of this use of cost analysis.

On the user end – IF solar, wind or other alt energy items are used and integrated properly – then they will reduce dependency on oi/gas for the long term.The whole alt energy mentality takes an adjustment of your thinking -to think you are going to continue to live as you do now but just converting to wind or solar is nuts.  

As few examples:

We bought a solar panel to heat & cool my home. The cost of the 15watt panel was $150 ($105+s/h), 150 ft of dryer flex tubing ($82), and a dc fan recycled from a car radiator. My time (3 hours at $60/hr) means I spent $367 to add supplemental heating and completely replace cooling via ac in my house for the life of the system. IF I live 20 more years – it cost me $18.35 to save about $60/year (at present rates) of natural gas and electricity. The pay-back time is about 6 years.

I bought no mowing grasses to replace a high maintenance lawn at $230. I used a chemical to kill off the old lawn for $97 and some machinery to do some leveling and added compost (rental & gas was $250) -total $1057 (plus my time +8 [email protected]$60). At 2 hours a week maintenance on my lawn for a 6 month growing season – (2hours*$10 per hr*4wks*6months – paid help when I can find it), equipment ($1,500/10 years life = $150 a year PLUS GAS . . .when it’s not needing some kind of repair) is about $630 a year. That is a pay back time of about 2 years – and some peace of mind and relaxation for the non-future use of gas/oil at the present price – let alone the future price. . . not to mention – the reduction in labor. Note I could have gone with some goats or sheep.

Last example we’re in process of: I need to replace my septic system in a watershed zone. The cost of a convention holding tank would be about $6,000. For me to replace the system with a methane digesting was under $400 – AND I GET FREE COOKING FUEL FOR LIFE

Things that have not been so great a change- anything with a battery or storage of energy because it doubles the cost of the system. I’m still on the fence about this and can’t decide if I want to switch to air pressure, h or dive $ into lithium ion batteries. . . though the best battery technology I ever saw was made from ratio-active waste and the batteries I’ve had for 18 years are still running (in a calculator).  Another cost we haven’t bought into yet is a solar room to collect heat winters; solar hot water, buut that will mainly be recycled parts and that’s time issue.

And yes, conservation is the key – but I’m sure some one can do a cost analysis on how conserving takes up gas/oil too.

Think long term, think how you can conserve in the life stlye you now live and envision how you will live without any energy supporting you – then use alt energy technology to lock in your costs where you can now – before it gets too late.

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 12:17am

    #8
    switters

    switters

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=srbarbour]

A long story short, this is not the time to be concerned about what type of energy is being used to produce our renewable energy. Instead, we should focus primarily on increasing the percentage of our energy that is renewable. If the production systems and infrastructure does not follow when the percentage of all energy that is renewable has become high. Then and only then does a push to force those production systems to ‘all renewable’ deserve merit.

[/quote]

I’m not "concerned" with what type of energy is being used to produce renewables; I am merely pointing out that it takes energy to produce renewable energy, and right now that energy is mostly liquid fuel (oil, specifically).  

And that’s what it will be for the foreseeable future.  We do not currently have the technology to run long-haul, multiple axle trucks or heavy machinery like tractors or boats on electricity.  Infrastructure development is heavily dependent upon these methods of moving things around.  Liquid fuel alternatives (with the possible exception of algae biofuels) are among the least energy dense renewables from an EROEI perspective, and they are quite heavily dependent upon conventional oil themselves (although this of course could be offset by future production of biofuels).

I’m not saying we won’t develop renewable technology and infrastructure.  We will.  I’m not saying we won’t/can’t use oil to do it.  We will and we should.  I’m just saying that it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to replace oil with renewables in a smooth and pain-free way.  I’m also saying that I personally believe we will never fully replace oil with renewables and that we are living right now in the most energy-rich society the world will see for quite some time – possibly ever.  Of course I can’t "prove" that, and I wouldn’t even try to.  It’s just an opinion based on my analysis, research and observations on human behavior.

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 12:39am

    #9
    srbarbour

    srbarbour

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote]

I’m not "concerned" with what type of energy is being used to
produce renewables; I am merely pointing out that it takes energy to
produce renewable energy, and right now that energy is mostly liquid
fuel (oil, specifically). 

[/quote]

Ah.  I apologize then.   Its just I’ve heard this kind of argument used to dismiss various technologies over and over again.

I agree, that for the foreseeable future most things will be built and run on non-renewable energy.  That is a direct consequence of our energy primarily being non-renewable.   That shift though, will occur much faster in a constrained energy environment.

[quote] Liquid fuel alternatives (with the possible exception of algae
biofuels) are among the least energy dense renewables from an EROEI
perspective, and they are quite heavily dependent upon conventional oil
themselves (although this of course could be offset by future
production of biofuels).[/quote]

I’d add that various cellulosic ethanols are rated at 5:1 energy ratios.   Almost all of these can be produced without a drop of oil additive, though not in so large of quantities. 

[quote] I’m just saying that it’s highly unlikely we’ll be able to replace oil with renewables in a smooth and pain-free way.[/quote]

Agreed.   There rarely is a smooth and pain free transition for any major economic shift — as the buggy whip manufactures can attest. Tongue out

[quote]I’m also saying that I personally believe we will never fully replace
oil with renewables and that we are living right now in the most
energy-rich society the world will see for quite some time – possibly
ever.[/quote] 

I’d disagree there.   Solar energy has the potential to swell human energy consumption several magnituedes higher.

Some order of magnitude:

[quote]15 TW – geo: average total power consumption of the human world in 2004

174.0 PW – astro: total power received by the earth from the sun
[/quote] 

In otherwords, the total energy hitting earth is ~1.74×10^17 and the total energy consumed in 2004 is ~1.5×10^13

Therefore, if we covered 1% of the Earth surface with solar cells that collected/stored energy at 1% efficiency we’d still beat the 2004 energy consumption of the world by 16%.  With, uh, lots of room for expansion.   

(Space based solar has finite limits that defy all human conception.) 

We will definitely live in a much more energy rich world in the future.  We might though, face a 10-30 year gap before finally surpassing a short term peak.

We will also definitely replace oil with renewables.  Oil is, after all, just a carbon chain.

Steve 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 08:53am

    #10
    Akrotiri21

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    Re: The problem with renewable energy

 

Switters,

A couple of things I am not sure about in your last response.  One is your statement that:

If we take 5% as a mean, in 10 years we’d have 50% less oil production than we do now.  Since we’re currently producing 84mbd, that means we’d hav only 42mbd per day by that time.  The problem, of course, is that demand will increase during that time because of India and China.  Both of these opposing factors will contribute to the supply gap / shortage.

Here are my concerns:

(1) I gather you use 5% as the mean between 2% and 9%, but this seems to be prior to yearly capacity additions and the bringing on of any non-conventionals.  Yearly capacity additions over the last 8 years have been something like 4mbd, or 4-5 % and we should be able to expect something — 2-3 mbd from other sources coming on — for a few years, anyway.  So if 5% is prior to these additions, then decline is roughly flat; if after, then I think you are assuming a pretty high underlying decline rates — something like 10-11%.  That latter may be right, but it is currently an outlier prediction.  (Even Campbell has used a 2.5% net decline rate).

(2) As I run the numbers, a 5% yearly decline rate doesn’t get us 50% less or from 84 to 82, but to 65.

How I get there: multiplying 84mbd by 95% gets us 79.8 after year 1; multiplying 79.8 by 95% gets us 75.81 after year two; multiplying 75.81 by 95% gets us 72.01 after year three; multiplying 72.01 by 95% gets us 68.4 after year four; multiplying 68.4 by 95% gets us 64.99 after five years.  So 5 full years later we have a 23% total reduction.  I don’t know if I have done this incorrectly, but it falls squarely in the range of most projections (as graphed by Hutter).

(3) As I understand it, demand is a member of a 3-part equation, with price bringing supply into equilibrium with demand.  Where production is very cheap (plentiful) demand will be high.  Kind of like with cheap electricity, we all wander around leaving lights on and buy greedy appliances.  But if electricity becomes very expensive, then demand diminishes very quickly (cut the lights, install energy savers).  So it seems to me misleading to take current levels of demand at current prices and suggest that this is what demand will be and anything less than that equals a shortage; it is what demand would be at the same very cheap prices.  But we agree that scarcity will be kicking in, rapidly sending signals to consumers to substitute, converserve, forego use.  And here is where I agree with you about something that makes me a bit optimistic about our demand elasticity: our current way of life doesn’t actually make us very happy, so making changes isn’t really sacrifice, and many of us are already ready to do it.  Anecdotally I think of one Japanese teenager’s response to a question about what kind of car she would like:  None: "Cars are so 20th century."

Next, you wrote:

 You cannot have economic growth without a growth in the supply of energy.  I have not seen a single economist who is taken seriously argue with that fundamental truth.

This is, I think, in response to my question:

 But I sense in other comments that "energy intensive" is considered to be intrinsically related to economic growth (and maybe environmental degradation) and therefore less energy intensive is required for a future in which fewer of us live  well.  Is this correct?

All I was asking was whether energy intensive somehow entailed economic growth, not whether growth required additional energy; put differently, can one have an intensive-energy-steady-state-economy, or is that somehow incoherent?

Regarding the "fundamental truth", isn’t it true that you can have economic growth with a static supply of energy if you capture efficiency gains?  Or is that a mistake?

I think we at least agree that — one way or another — we will be moving to a way of life that is more sustainable and enjoyable.  Thanks again for the conversation. 

 

 

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