I recently wrote a column “When is renewable energy, not renewable” and I stated a number of obvious reasons except for “why do we even want it?” To review, there are basically three ways in which we can obtain energy for generating electricity: mine it, grow it or capture it:
- To mine it means it may eventually be depleted (but when?).
- To grow it means it has to share resources with food production.
- To capture it means it needs space where water flows, wind blows and sun shines.
Mined sources have the most energy density because it is stored energy. Capture sources has the least energy density because it is not stored energy (except for hydro). Mankind has progressed through energy sources from sun, wind, water, wood, coal, oil, gas, rock and now back to sun and wind again and some places wood pellets. However, the greatest energy source by far is mass itself as proven by this famous equation; E = mc2 .
Matter (occupied space) is composed of atoms with a nucleus of very dense material consisting of neutrons and protons, and these very; very small electrons, that orbit the nucleus like the planets orbit the sun. All of the hydrocarbon energy that we use on earth today is based on re-arranging these electrons in orbits around the atom. That’s called chemical energy, which is the basis of our combustion, digestion, and many other processes. There is a fair amount of energy that can be gained from that chemical reaction, but if you examine using the energy in the nucleus, changing the structure of the nucleus, re-arranging the particles in the nucleus, there is far, far more energy (million times more) that can be extracted from that reaction. That is called nuclear energy, the energy of the nucleus (neutrons and protons) rather than chemical energy, the energy of the electrons.
So ‘why’ is there such a fuss about replacing the densest energy with the least dense energy; captured wind and solar? Well the best answer that I can figure out is that the environmentalist have labeled renewable as a ‘brand’ for clean and safe energy that will not destroy our environment or bring death to the masses. However, if the environmentalist had picked nuclear as the most renewable energy because its fuel source is cleaner, safer, more efficient and will out last the earth itself, they would have to be called anti-non-nuclear-energy activist. Renewable has become a generic term and can include all of the energy sources or none of the energy sources. It is becoming meaningless.
Green is another example of a brand name and is used to market many products that may or may not be any more efficient than the products they are replacing. Each replacement product usually has a higher price tag. Have you purchase any LED lights recently? Was there anything wrong with your incandescent lights that you replaced? Both types of lights require a steady flow of electricity without interruption, which is what, will probably happen if we continue down the path to replace fossil and nuclear with intermitted and unreliable wind and solar. Wind and solar energy do have actual usable energy production, but with capacity factors that are very low it will require massive overbuilding of these systems.
Nuclear energy, and only nuclear energy, has the ‘energy to mass’ density to be sustainable indefinitely at levels of energy production that involve a balance of human decency coupled to environmental justice. Now, was that statement politically correct enough?