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Robert Rapier: Nonrenewable Renewables?

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The Energy Experts Reconvene at the WSJ

Generally when I find myself having to write a follow-up post to something I wrote, it’s because I obviously didn’t make my points clearly enough. I found this to be the case during a lively Twitter discussion following my latest contribution to the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) Energy Experts Panel. But I love these sorts of discussions because they help me hone the message I am trying to deliver.

This week the WSJ began publishing the latest round of answers to questions that were submitted to their energy panel several weeks ago. The first question answered this week was: What is the single biggest misconception people have about renewable energy in the U.S.?

First, if you don’t know about the WSJ Expert Panels, I explained that in some detail here. Essentially, the WSJ has groups of experts in different fields, and they pose questions on various topics. We are asked to write ~ 300-word answers to these questions, which often means leaving out caveats and/or clarifications. The answers are more detailed than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, but some topics leave a lot of issues unaddressed with just a 300-word answer.

What is Renewable Energy?

In a nutshell, my answer to the question is that the biggest misconception is the extent to which many of our “renewables” areWhat does renewable energy mean? This question isn’t as simple as it sounds.n’t strictly renewable. To explain what I mean by that, I started out by defining “renewable.”

For example, if a plant grows, is harvested, and is replanted, we might say that is renewable. But what if we managed to get 10 times the yield by application of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that at the same time depleted a fossil aquifer? Is it still renewable? According to the way I view renewable energy, then this source is now only partially renewable, which means it can only be sustained for so long. Yes, there is still a renewable component, but now we have introduced nonrenewable aspects to provide greater yields. Could we still get 10 times the yield without the nonrenewable components? Maybe, maybe not.

My answer sparked a Twitter discussion which revolved around the definition of renewable energy. At one point the Wikipedia definition of renewable energy was cited, and it says “Renewable energy is generally defined as energy that comes from resources which are continually replenished on a human timescale such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat.”

Nonrenewable Energy from Renewable Sources

Of course I don’t dispute that the energy that arrives on earth from the sun is a renewable source, but solar power may not be renewable energy. It all depends on how we harvest it. This is my point. As a hypothetical example, assume that we can only produce solar power by utilizing some rare resource that will run out in 3 years. Under that scenario, is solar power renewable? Of course the sun will still shine, but if we have no way to continue to harvest and use that power then solar power via that particular method isn’t renewable, because truly renewable energy production can’t deplete critical resources (in my opinion).

Nitpicks about definitions aside, why do we care about renewable energy? Because in theory we could continue to harvest it in perpetuity without depleting nonrenewable resources and without damaging the environment. It would be energy that we could use that wouldn’t put future generations at any sort of disadvantage. But insert important nonrenewable components into that chain of gathering, processing, and delivering renewable energy and you have a system that fails that “in perpetuity” test. Thus for me, that would be a renewable energy system that isn’t sustainable, which means it isn’t fully renewable, Wikipedia definitions notwithstanding. (Note that such a system may still be better than the status quo; it just depends on the details).

Now here is an important caveat that was lost on some. My target here wasn’t wind and solar. They were used merely as examples to show that pretty much every energy system has nonrenewable aspects. Unfortunately, some sought to interpret my article as an affront to wind and solar. In fact, some interpreted my article as a call to cease development of renewables and to maintain the status quo. I suppose these sorts of misinterpretations should no longer surprise me.

But not all renewables are created equally. As we incentivize and subsidize renewable energy, we have to consider important questions, like 1). How long before any nonrenewable inputs are depleted?; 2). Does the production of the nonrenewable inputs damage the environment?; 3). Are there alternatives that we could ultimately use instead of the nonrenewable inputs? Because in many cases the switch from 80% renewable energy production to 100% renewable energy for a particular energy technology may be simply a matter of economics, and not necessity. I am concerned about the cases where it may be more necessity, in which case we have a nonrenewable renewable, or a pseudo-renewable.

How Renewable are Biofuels?

My real target here is certain biofuels that are thoroughly dependent upon fossil fuels — particularly natural gas — but that are all treated as equally renewable. For instance, consider a hypothetical situation in which production of 1 BTU of some specific biofuel required more than 1 BTU of petroleum. In that case, we would have a situation that is worse than the status quo, but people could pat themselves on the back because we are using “renewable” energy. (I understand that a certain greenhouse gas reduction is supposed to be achieved before renewable sources qualify for subsidies and mandates under EPA definitions, but those reductions are based on modeling assumptions that may prove invalid under actual production conditions).

There are varying degrees of renewable, and in fact the scale doesn’t merely go from 0% to 100%. In the previous example, if 1 BTU of biofuel required 2 BTUs of petroleum to produce, that biofuel is worse than 0% renewable. In that case you would be better off just to use the petroleum directly. Likewise, if 1 BTU of a biofuel could displace (through synergies) more than 1 BTU of petroleum, you could argue that it is better than 100% renewable. Yet in both of these cases, that BTU of the biofuel may be considered to be totally renewable.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that even partially renewable is generally preferred over totally nonrenewable. I say “generally” because it depends on the factors that make that resource “partially” renewable. Whale oil, for instance, is a renewable fuel, but the more whale oil we decide to consume the less renewable it becomes. At some point (setting aside the ethical arguments) the argument will become “OK, nonrenewable in this case is better, because it buys some time to find something more renewable than whale oil.”


My objective in writing articles like this is to argue that we don’t want to swap one unsustainable economy for another. We want to consider critical nonrenewable inputs in the production of renewable sources, and we don’t want to reward those that are overly reliant on those nonrenewable inputs. We don’t want our energy sources — renewable or nonrenewable — to place future generations at a significant disadvantage.

The take home message is not “Renewables are just as bad as nonrenewables since they ARE really nonrenewables.” It may be that in some cases this is true, but it isn’t true that all renewables can be so broadly classified. The take home should be “All energy sources have trade-offs, and it is important to understand all sides of those trade-offs.”

R-Squared Energy

21 Comments on "Robert Rapier: Nonrenewable Renewables?"

  1. LT on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 10:35 pm 

    So, we know that it takes non-renewable resources to harvest renewable energy.

    This is undeniable, isn’t it?
    And this also will prolong our way of life a little longer till all non-renewable resources get depleted.

    Then what? What will we do after that?

    So, we see that energy issue is a big issue, but not a fundamental one.

    The fundamental/root issue lies in our current way of life/lifestyle. And that should be considered/studied/changed if we, humanity, want to save ourselves.

    We, humanity, should reorganize/reform our way of life or our way of government, our system of law, system of tax so that we, collectively as a society, are not dependent on non-renewable resources as much as we can.

    But I know, it won’t happen.

  2. action on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 11:02 pm 

    Whenever I’m trying to make a difficult decision it helps to use extremes. For instance, if I were go to the extreme end of the spectrum and assume that every country in the world decides to switch to solar as much as possible, then it can be concluded that a very large amount on non-renewable energy would be used to make that happen. This in turn would increase the depletion rate of the critical non-renewable resource, and in the end would hurt more than it helped. I just used solar as an example at random but the same could go for virtually all other “renewables”. If they depend on hydrocarbons, then producing them uses more hydrocarbons and our depletion rate increases. Simply put but not so simply enacted, the solution is to stop using hydrocarbons.

  3. bobinget on Tue, 24th Sep 2013 11:51 pm 

    We find ourselves in the ‘use it or lose it’ conundrum.
    In this our ‘moment’ of plentiful, cheap natural gas we should be using low cost energy resulting to build as much ‘renewable’ infrastructure as possible. Name it,
    everything needs energy to get built or farm.

    Instead, to defeat low gas prices, hydrocarbon companies are seeking ways to export gas.

    This, for coal companies is a win win. Coal NEEDS higher gas prices to survive. For virtually everyone else it’s lose lose.

    Fight NG exports not fracking.

  4. LT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 12:12 am 

    Yes, action. System with positive feedback loop always lead to destruction, always. It has been proven in mathematics, in experiments, in real life systems.


    Quote: “we should be using low cost energy resulting to build as much ‘renewable’ infrastructure as possible.”

    >> This is exactly what I wanted to say earlier but a bit lazy typing it out.

    Doing what you suggest will buy us, humanity, sometime to reconfigure our way of life. That is exactly what the G20 countries and the UN should take the lead and put effort into. It is urgent. It is necessary. It is the right thing and meaningful to do as soon as possible.

    But, again, I know it won’t happen.

  5. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 12:23 am 

    Where are all the whale oil and buggy whips ……..

  6. BillT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 2:49 am 

    If we try to use all of the nat gas to build solar panels and that heat release changes the climate so that the grain belts turn to deserts, has that helped?

    There are no true ‘renewables’ beyond that grown in sunlight and consumed for energy by living beings. All else are lies and evasions.

  7. BillT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 3:03 am 

    BTW: I read that it takes 4 tons of coal equivalent to produce one solar panel from mines to roof top. Sounds reasonable and maybe understated, but… If that is correct, just to replace the electric used by the US in one year with solar panels, would take more than 2,000,000,000,000 tons of coal. PLUS all of the coal, oil, nat gas, etc burned as usual to keep the electric on while the panels were being made and placed. Ditto for any other ‘renewable’ replacement. Who is going to give up 2 trillion tons of coal so the US can do this? Answer: NO-ONE!

    End of debate. There are no ‘Renewables’ to save BAU. None!

  8. GregT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 3:19 am 

    “There are no true ‘renewables’ beyond that grown in sunlight and consumed for energy by living beings. All else are lies and evasions.”

    BillT is correct. All else ARE lies and evasions.

  9. Jerry L on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 7:22 am 

    I like this article, it has made me think. I am more convinced about the importance of a life cycle assessment in choosing a product, even if they are not perfect.
    A few weeks ago I read an article that indicated that the production of “cheap” solar panels in China needed about twice as much energy as those produced in Germany. How does one decide that the extra price for a German-built solar panel is worth the improved energy balance? Perhaps many problems would be solved if there was a tax on CO2 pollution that covered the costs of mitigating environmental change?

  10. Jerry L on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 7:32 am 

    I disagree with the simple calculations/comments that indicate that we need so much coal to go totally solar. As more solar panels are built and put into use, they reduce the amount of coal in the energy mix. Every new solar panel put into use is contributing to a reduced carbon footprint for the next solar panel that be built.

  11. Arthur on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 9:54 am 

    A fuzzy, useless article.

    “As a hypothetical example, assume that we can only produce solar power by utilizing some rare resource that will run out in 3 years. Under that scenario, is solar power renewable?”

    Rapier omits to even hint at what that ‘rare resource’ could be in the case of wind and solar. Or hydro and geothermal.

    In 2013 nobody needs to be convinced anymore that biofuels are by and large useless (eroei), or rather that biofuel can be used at least to argumentatively corner those people who keep insisting that you need oil for all sorts of purposes, where in reality you don’t.

    Bill says: “I read that it takes 4 tons of coal equivalent to produce one solar panel from mines to roof top.”

    Tellingly, you do not give a link to backup your claim. Let’s do some calculations:

    A standard 250 peak watt panel produces 250 kwh per year in a less than favorable climate like Holland and maybe 350 kwh in California and 500 kwh in Egypt (the latter two numbers are guestimates). 250 kwh/year = 7500 kwh on a 30 year lifespan. 1 kilo coal contains 8.1 kwh energy, 4000 kilo or more than 32,000 kwh, that is four times the total energy yield of the panel. In reality panels have a typical eroei of 7 or higher, up to 38:

    So your 4 ton coal number sucks big time Bill.

    In the past PV research has been focused on achieving high efficiency rates, trying to harvest as much electricity from a m² solar cells, where research is now aimed at increasing eroei, resulting in simpler panels with lower efficiency but at much lower (energy) cost. And there is still a lot of potential to further reduce the cost of PV dramatically.

    The planetary-solar conditions on earth are such that 30 km above the atmosphere there is a permanent influx of energy of 1361 watt per square meter (W/m²) during the day. In the desert some 1000 W/m² remain of that. Assume a modest efficiency of 10% for the cheap cell of the future and every m² desert on earth becomes a potential cash cow of 30 dollar cent a day (current Dutch end user electricity prices) for ca 1 kWh of electricity produced on that 1 m².

    Remember that 1 kWh is the equivalent of man-day of really hard labor. A standard 250 peak watt panel of 220 euro represents the equivalent of the services of one Friday (Robinson Crusoe) during 30 years, doing work Americans refuse to

    That panel can be constructed with on a thin plastic substrate (to be produced from bio fuel later this century) and an irrelevant active layer of a few microns, irrelevant from a resource depletion standpoint.

  12. BillT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 9:58 am 

    BS Jerry. you are not thinking this through … the solar electric produced by the new panels is soaked up in the demand for ‘growth’. so the same coal will be burned anyway. And there is no way that the required number of solar panels could ever be built. That is 500,000,000,000 panels just for the US or 1.3 billion panels per day for a year. And that is based on a 5 hour per day sunlight exposure on average. The actual number would be much, much higher.

  13. Jerry L on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 2:37 pm 

    Hi Bill!
    Good point: the growth in PV electricity production needs to be greater than the rate of growth of electricity use. I guess that in time we will see how this all works out.
    But consider this: one day this summer in Germany solar PV production peaked and supplied more than 40 % of total electrical energy demand. Renewable energy (solar +wind) covered more than 50 % of the demand on that day. Quite an achievement when on thinks that the German (industrial) economy is not exactly crashing. When I walk around German towns less than 5% of buildings have PV panels on their roofs. There is still a lot of room for growth in solar energy.
    The history of solar PV systems in Germany is only about 10 years old, Germany is not a sunny country, and the increase in in the number of PV systems was quite slow the first years. (for an old man like me 10 yrs is a short time).

  14. BillT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 3:19 pm 

    Germany is less than 3% of the world’s population … and is practically landlocked without any resources. They have to do something or die. Not so for most of the world … yet. No, it will be BAU until the crash.

  15. Arthur on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 3:44 pm 

    “Germany is less than 3% of the world’s population … and is practically landlocked without any resources. They have to do something or die.”

    So you admit that ‘something’ can be done after all.

    “When I walk around German towns less than 5% of buildings have PV panels on their roofs. There is still a lot of room for growth in solar energy.
    The history of solar PV systems in Germany is only about 10 years old”

    Indeed. There is no energy related resource depletion problem. The potential for a renewable energy base dwarfs the current fossil fuel based system. The real question is: how to get there? We have a timing problem, not a lack of potential. I have no doubt that by 2100, we’ll have plenty of high tech societies, more advanced then we have now. The prime indicator of what will happen to the population between now and 2100 will be the population number in 2100. It will tell if the transition has been achieved with or without massive die-off.

  16. LT on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 6:13 pm 

    Solar energy is like rain water. It’s not continuous around the clock. Therefore, it’s not very helpful.

    What makes solar energy (and rain water as well) more helpful is the means to store the energy it produces (or the water when it rains). In the solar energy case,it is the battery-banks (and water-tanks for rain water) that provides energy to do work.

    Therefore, the real working horse of a solar energy system is the battery-bank, while solar panel serves essentially as feeding stock.

    Thus, although solar panel may be made to last very long and free of maintenance, the battery-bank may not be lasting that very long and requires proper maintenance or it won’t last as long.

    Conclusion: The heart of a solar energy system is not that thin-film, cheap PV panel, it is the the battery-bank that stores and provides energy to the house.

    So, how long does an average battery last?

    Is it made/manufactured by renewable resources?

    How much energy does it take to make/manufacture a battery?

  17. Arthur on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 7:14 pm 

    “Therefore, the real working horse of a solar energy system is the battery-bank, while solar panel serves essentially as feeding stock.”

    Not really. The real ‘battery pack’ on society level will be this:

    In Europe’s case it is Norway, in the case of north America, the Rockies.

    Or is this solution too ‘socialist’ for your taste? 😉

  18. RobertRapier on Wed, 25th Sep 2013 9:43 pm 

    “Rapier omits to even hint at what that ‘rare resource’ could be in the case of wind and solar.”

    That’s why it was called a hypothetical. It is merely to illustrate that we have to make sure such possibilities are considered.

    “In 2013 nobody needs to be convinced anymore that biofuels are by and large useless (eroei),”

    Nobody? Then why is the government still forcing people to buy them and mandating all sorts of “advanced biofuel” schemes that promise that their eroei will make it worthwhile?

  19. Arthur on Thu, 26th Sep 2013 7:36 am 

    Mr Rapier,

    That is precisely my problem with your article, it is hypothetical. But in the mean time you achieve to throw dirt on what is our probably our only hope for the near future: solar (and wind).

    You claim:

    “but solar power may not be renewable energy.”

    Fine. Do you have any arguments? Or hints even, worries? You play into the laymens belief, rampant even on this forum, that solar is not renewable (because supposedly you need oil for it’s production).

    On biofuel… the government is not a very rational thinking body, but the subject of various powerful lobbies, hungry for subsidies. I do not know you, but I watched a short clip of yours correctly stating that biofuel has limited usefulness because of its ca 1% efficiency. Every thinker on energy matters knows this. Biofuel will have limited niche use in the future, but it is not the major solution of our problems. The solution #1 is solar, plus wind for coastal areas or Mongolia.

  20. RobertRapier on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 9:27 pm 

    “Fine. Do you have any arguments? Or hints even, worries?”

    I think what we have here is a failure to communicate.

    I point out clearly in the article that it isn’t aimed at wind or solar. In fact, I have strongly endorsed solar as the future in previous articles. The solar example was just meant to convey “Whatever the renewable, think about any nonrenewable elements.” There is no implication that solar has some hidden nonrenewable, which is what you seem to believe I am saying. All I am saying is IF you had a situation like that, it’s not renewable. Such hypotheticals can be very useful for heading off problems before them become problems.

  21. RobertRapier on Fri, 27th Sep 2013 9:33 pm 

    You claim: “but solar power may not be renewable energy.”

    Surely you realize you are quoting out of context? The answer was in the sentence following your snippet. I think the point is quite clear that how you harvest so-called renewable sources determines whether they are actually renewable power. The point was not “solar power isn’t renewable.”

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