Peak Oil is You

Donate Bitcoins ;-) or Paypal :-)

Page added on January 27, 2011

Bookmark and Share

Clean energy won’t save the world!

Clean energy won’t save the world! thumbnail

To listen to President Obama, you would think that clean energy is our next salvation. But clean energy can’t exist on its own. Clean energy options should more properly be called “fossil fuel extenders”. They only work within a system that has fossil fuels.

We can’t make solar PV panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels, and we can’t move them to their new sites and install them without fossil fuels. Many solar panels are made in China, and wind turbines often include overseas components (or are made overseas). If grid tied solar PV is installed without back-up batteries, it won’t work when the grid isn’t working.

Even corn ethanol is a fossil fuel extender. Corn is planted, harvested and transported using vehicles that use oil, and of course the finished product is mixed with petroleum products. Fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides also use petrochemicals, and ethanol plants are usually powered with natural gas or coal.

Wind turbines are only about 2% of US electrical production, and solar PV is well under 1%. Why aren’t school children and adults told about where our electricity comes from? The biggest source is coal, followed by natural gas. Nuclear is a very close third after natural gas.

Figure 1. US electric generation since 1970 in Btus, based on EIA data

Our electrical system needs oil, too. Most of the workers get to work in cars; maintenance of transmission lines needs to be done using vehicles; replacement parts need be transported using vehicles powered by oil; oil is needed for lubrication.

Even if we had an abundant supply of electricity from wind and solar, that electricity wouldn’t run today’s cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats. They run on petroleum products, except for a very few electrical powered vehicles. The electrical vehicles we are looking to use to replace current vehicles use lithium, which is an imported product (requiring oil for transport). Sources are limited, and leave us open to some of the same issues of supply interruption as oil.

More important than taking about clean energy is talking about using less fossil fuel energy, especially petroleum products, through buying smaller vehicles, carpooling and using public transportation. Saving electricity or natural gas through insulation and sealing cracks is helpful too, but doesn’t help our liquid fuel problem.

Taxing oil companies is a popular subject, but it is worthwhile thinking this through. Will doing this reduce the amount of oil that they pump, because fields that were at one time economic, are no longer economic? An example that is often given is all of the stripper wells that we have in the United States. They are typically owned by very small companies or individuals, rather than big oil companies. Together, they pump something like 900,000 barrels of oil a day out of the 5.5 million barrels a day of oil we are now pumping. These wells would likely not be profitable with higher taxes. They would just be closed. There are no doubt fields that big companies have in production that are marginal as well. Higher taxes might very well push the oil companies to close them.

Why not just import more? One issue is whether we really can. Imports have been declining since 2005, because world oil supply has remained flat, and because of more competition from China, India, and the oil exporting countries. It is nice to think that OPEC will supply more oil if we need it, but there is little evidence they can really raise their production by several million barrels of oil a day. Despite their promises, they haven’t done so to date, now or back in 2008, when prices were very high.

Whether we like it our not, we need petroleum products. If we don’t have them, we need to plan for a very different world. Rather than talking about clean energy, perhaps it would be worthwhile talking about what the world would look like with much less, or no, petroleum products. We have had an abundance of fossil fuel products in the last 200 years, but this will not continue forever.

Another thing we need to do is think through is what our economic system would look like with less oil. The oil intensity of the US economy has been declining by a shade over 2% per year. Even if this rate of improvement continues, we cannot expect the US economy to keep growing, if oil consumption (including imports) declines by a greater percentage, roughly 2% a year. Declines of greater than 2% a year in oil consumption seem quite possible–we experienced them in the recent recession. We need to think through what we need to do to change our economy, so that it can handle year to year declines in both oil consumption and economic growth.

President Obama, why don’t you start talking straight to the American people? Start telling the story as it is. Quit sugar coating the “clean energy” story. There is a very significant chance our oil imports will continue to decline from their 2005 peak in the near future, and we really haven’t prepared for this eventuality. There aren’t easy answers, but telling the truth would be a start in the right direction.

Our Finite World

4 Comments on "Clean energy won’t save the world!"

  1. Lampert Scratch on Thu, 27th Jan 2011 1:22 pm 

    He can’t tell the truth because, if everyone catches on that energy supplies and the economy can only shrink for the forseable future, noone will be able to lend, nor borrow, and the credit system will collapse. And at this point, the whole system is the credit system.

  2. Andrew DeWit on Thu, 27th Jan 2011 5:47 pm 

    I know it’s often hard for Americans to remember there’s a larger world out there. But please do look at how the Germans are producing 17% of their power via renewables. Note that the Icelanders are generating 70% of their power from geothermal and the rest from hydro. Of course Americans should be conserving energy. But if we don’t have green alternatives, we’ll have enormous trouble meeting rising energy demand in China, India, etc.

  3. Kenz300 on Fri, 28th Jan 2011 1:47 am 

    Alternative energy sources are the future.

    Wind, solar, geothermal, wave energy and second generation biofuels are all ramping up production around the world.

    Bring on the electric, hybrid, and flex-fuel vehicles.

    China is making massive investments in alternative energy. The unit cost of production continues to drop and research and development is making progress each year.

    Remember when flat screen TV’s were very expensive? Now they are inexpensive and a commodity.

    As alternative energy sources continue to ramp up they will reduce the unit cost and also become a commodity. The growth in alternative energy, electric vehicles and hybrids is poised to take off.

  4. Rick on Fri, 28th Jan 2011 4:48 am 

    I agree with the title “Clean energy won’t save the world!” and what the author says.

    Though some people still don’t get it. No oil, means no alternative energy sources. Even if we make the parts here, rather than China or where ever, oil is used to make this stuff people. Like JHK says, Happy Motoring is coming to an end.

    Finally, just for fun. Go to the Tesla site: and look at the beautiful electric cars.

    But take oil out of the equation, and the car would not exist, at least most of it would not. Meaning no tires, that’s an easy one, no interior, no body, etc. Get the picture now. And for those synthetic oil folks, meaning oil from coal, coal is also finite, and you’re delusional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *