“Renewable Energy” the Most Destructive Source?



The assumption of global warming alarmists and radical environmentalists,  uncritcally accepted by their enablers in media and political establishments, and now by ignorant masses in Europe and the U.S., is that mankind can survive using only “renewable” energy sources. This excludes all fossil fuels and even nuclear energy.


Since 1973 everything I have ever learned about these “alternative” sources, combined with an understanding of the magnitudes of energy required by industrial civiliation, leads me to believe that this is nonsense, at least given a world population of 7 billion, and the desire of that population to acquire or continue to enjoy the comforts, conveniences and broadened horizons provided by industrial civilization. The numbers of people willing to sacrifice those benefits for the drudgery and straitened circumstances of a pre-industrial world is tiny indeed.


Am I correct in my assessment? Here are some well-cited numbers from Wikipedia’s “solar energy” article:


– One joule is the equivalent of 1 watt applied for one second.


– The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850 zetajoules (ZJ) per year (3,850 to the 21st power, or with 21 zeros after it).


– Photosynthesis captures approximately 3 ZJ per year in biomass.


 – Worldwide electricity consumption was approximately 0.0567 ZJ in 2005.


 – Worldwide primary energy consumption by humans was 0.487 ZJ in 2005.


Putting these figures in context, mankind uses the equivalent of 1/7000th the total amount of the sun’s energy that falls upon the Earth, most of which comes from fossil fuels. The U.S. uses one fifth of that, even though we have less than 1/20th of the world population. Given that rural Chinese or Zimbabweans aspire to live like Americans rather than vice-versa, let’s assume that for all of us on this planet to ascend to even a very basic level of bourgeois comfort and security we’re going to need a lot more energy. Assuming the US cut its use in half and the rest of world came up to that level, mankind would need the equivalent of around 1/3500th of the solar energy absorbed by this planet.


Or to put it another way, if humans all lived in the style to which we would like to become accustomed and used only various forms of non-nuclear “renewable” energy, our deal with the earth would be, “One for me and 3,499 for thee.” 


Sound like no problem? I suspect that it is. This energy is extremely diffused, and concentrating enough to do some useful work is difficult and expensive. The universe of practical opportunities to do so are limited. Sure, we could put windmills or solar cells everywhere, but in lots of places there’s not much wind consistently, or it’s cloudy a lot.


An indication of just how much of a challenge and how limited this “alternatives” option is can be seen buried in those figures. Photosynthesis captures approximately 3 ZJ per year in biomass, and worldwide primary energy consumption by humans was 0.487 ZJ in 2005. In other words, if humans got all our energy from burning plants, it would consume one-sixth of all the trees, grasses, algae, vines, tubers, you name it on the entire planet. (One sixth of the new growth, to be precise, but for practical purposes it’s essentially the same thing.)


Lets say that “biofuels” were the only form of “alternative” energy adopted. Humanity would be saying to rest of the biosphere, “One for me and five for thee.” It requires little imagination to realize what an ecological nightmare that would create – a million times worse than the Al Gore’s most lurid global warming fantasies. And that’s before we double worldwide consumption so as to raise the standards of living of those huddled masses outside the developed world!


Where does all that arithmetical noodling lead me? To this: Enviro’s should tell the truth about “renewable energy” potential, and the media should do their job and apply some critical thinking when they do. Also, over the next 100 years or so the oil economy will end, and even coal won’t be able to carry the load if we want to increase worldwide living standards (which we do). That mean’s we’re going to need a lot of new nuclear energy power plants on this planet (or perhaps geothermal plants that tap the earth’s heat). Fortunately, nothing prevents us from building more nukes, and with technologies that exist now or are on the immediate horizon there’s enough fuel to run them for millions of years. Now that’s sustainable!


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3 Responses to ““Renewable Energy” the Most Destructive Source?”

  1. Damon Hart-Davis Says:

    You should look at this book (online, free, not mine!): http://www.withouthotair.com/

    He concentrates on the UK which is already half or less per capita energy consumption of the US, and points out that it’s going to take some pain one way or another.

    Doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it just means that it can’t be done invisibly.



  2. jmchugh4u Says:

    Hey, that’s good stuff, Damon – thanks! That guy actually digs and in and does something radical – quantifies. Amazing what can be learned when this is attempted. I just scanned a bit, but he appears to confirm what I suspected, that only nukes can provide the magnitudes of sustainable, 24/7/365 energy needed to bring the entire world population up to basic bourgeois, middle-class living standards. He’s asking the right questions, which more often than not leads to the right answers.

  3. Nick Says:

    See, you’re talking numbers and analysis and we can’t have that.



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