‘When is renewable, not renewable?’

With all the concerns over climate change from governments all around the world you would think it is the number one priority that must be addressed immediately or we are all doomed. There are 7 billion people on the planet and an estimated 3 billon don’t have adequate energy to provide electricity for the basic survival needs to sustain life. Those people are already doomed to a shorter life span then the 4 billion that do have plenty of energy and have a choice of what to do with it. You can look at man’s use of fossil fuels as the evil source that is destroying the earth’s natural balance or you can look at all energy as the source that provides humanity with life in the big picture. In 1850 a new born had a life expectancy less than a 40 year and by 2011 that life expectancy increased to over 70 and up 80 years world wide. What changed in the last 164 years that allowed that to happen and why do advocacy groups want to switch to an alternative energy source that is actually more finite then fossil fuels?

Wind and solar are trending renewable energy sources right now because (sing along) ‘the sun will come out tomorrow’ and ‘the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.’ Everyone seems to be so focused on these two sources because they appear to always be there and for free, or at least carbon free. This form of energy is not exactly free as many would have you believe because you have to capture the sun and wind to make electricity. The solar panels and wind turbines that capture either source have to be manufactured from a finite set of minerals or elements found in the ground or water of this biosphere. To extract these minerals, it has to be strip mined and this process not only destroys the landscape, it also requires fossil fuel energy to do it. Therefore, renewable is no more renewable than any other energy source. In fact, ‘bet your bottom dollar’ that the term renewable energy is a misleading notion. Here is a short quiz that you can take to test that fallacy:

When is renewable not renewable? Pick one:

  •      When it requires extraction of finite rare minerals to manufacture towers and panels.
  •      When it requires large swath of land to setup those towers and panels farms.
  •      When it requires fossil fuels to supplement intermittency in capturing the sun or wind.
  •      When it requires food crops for ethanol instead of feeding the increasing masses.
  •      When it requires massive amounts of potable water to grow algae in an arid ecosystem.
  •      When it requires huge government subsidies in grants, loan guarantees and tax credits.

There is no wrong answer. Does wind, solar or bio-fuels have a place in the energy spectrum? As I said previously, Solar PV does have promise. It is great for personal use on your homes, business, farms, ranches and even to power satellites that connect us all together through the internet. While wind turbines are more efficient than solar, it clutters our landscape and takes a very special type of person (my wife) to think that is beautiful. As for bio-fuels, there is a place for biomass and the dairy farmers here in Chaves Country NM are doing just that: converting cow manure into ethanol, solid fertilizer and potable water. The best renewable source of energy is hydroelectric. However, it does not come without adverse effects on the river ecosystems they are build on.

So, is renewable really renewable, or even sustainable? We have 5 billions years to resolve that question because that is when the sun won’t come out tomorrow.

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