Monday April 24, 2006
This is a bit off-topic, but ever since our energy conversation, I’ve been thinking about how the whole notion of “renewable energy” might be a little short-sighted and skewed. We have a “non-renewable=bad, renewable=good” mentality, which partly rests on the understanding that non-renewable energy (i.e. coal) is bad for the environment, while renewable energy (i.e. wind) causes no harm.
Well: the world currently consumes about 450 quadrillion btu’s of energy per year. The burning of fossil fuels accounts for about 85 percent of that energy, and while wind still accounts for less then one percent, it makes for a valuable example, since it is growing rapidly [MS Excel link from this page 1].
Consider the causal chain by which fossil fuels harm the environment: the burning process produces compounds which interact with 02 molecules in our atmosphere (the ozone layer), defeating their solar-power deflecting properties, causing global warning. Note that the harm to the environment happens through changing the weather.
Now think about wind energy. What would happen if our use of that resource were to increase substantially? A causal relationship to weather change seems much easier to imagine then with fossils: when tens of quadrillions of btu of energy is harvested from winds, contrary to conventional notions of ‘renewable energy’, those btu’s will not be transparently replaced by anything: the only possible result is less wind.
This may sound far-fetched, but the laws of thermodynamics dictate that if energy is generated by a turbine, the wind must move more slowly after it passes over that turbine. The effect on winds may be immeasurable or irrelevant at today’s levels of wind energy harvesting, but there is no reason for assuming that it will remain so at higher levels of harvesting. One might even argue that messing with the winds could have much more dramatic effects on weather then global warming ever will. Analogous cases could be made for solar power, tide power, geothermal power, and any other energy source you’d care to name, in proportion to that source’s potential to provide a significant source of energy.
And while creating balance is a worthwhile goal, it won’t be a solution, since any renewable energy source that begins to contribute a significant proportion to the world’s energy reveals its downside; just look at the problems the Chinese are creating by attempting to harness hydro power.
So what’s the solution? Well, I don’t know, and I’m certainly not suggesting we abandon wind power (or any other alternative), just that our thinking might be a little short-sighted. I suspect that nuclear energy should be revisited, especially fusion. And I suspect that we need to really look at everything: conservation, increased efficiency, energy alternatives, and yes: drilling the damned gulf.
 Very typical government move: they don’t use HTML tables for displaying data, which is what they’re intended for (they I suppose they expect readers to open every one of those dozens of Excel links), but they have no problem using them for the page layout (for which they’re not supposed to be used).
Tags: environmentalismcomments powered by Disqus