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Vaclav Smil: “The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Vaclav Smil (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

That’s Vaclav Smil, the prolific University of Manitoba thinker writing in this month’s issue of Scientific American. When Smil says something I usually listen. In the last two decades he has written more than 30 books on almost every imaginable aspect of energy, the environment and the biosphere. The typical Smil approach – and one that has recently led Bill Gates to call him one of the authors whose books he most looks forward to – is to wrap an energy related topic in a tight blanket of facts and figures, transporting discussion from speculation and wishful thinking into hard data. Vaclav Smil is where the clouds of starry eyed energy dreams meet the cold mountain of numbers and reality.

Smil’s core argument is simple and one which I have often advanced on this blog: While reasonably promising, renewable energy is simply not quick and widespread enough. It has delivered very little in terms of overall contributions to the nation’s energy portfolio, and barring unexpected breakthroughs or radical policy changes, it seems set to continue on this excruciatingly slow track. This is contrary to the starry eyed dreams of renewable enthusiasts who seem to think that a renewables-dominated energy future is right around the corner.

Smil starts by noting an underappreciated fact, that only 3.35% of the 10% of so energy that renewables are providing right now comes from “new” renewables, namely solar, wind and liquid biofuels. The majority of renewables are still of the “old” variety, hydroelectric power and wood chips. We are unlikely to see any significant expansion in the latter category, so all the promise projected for renewables would have to come from the new ones, especially from solar and wind. Sadly these two currently provide a tiny fraction of national energy needs (wind: 1.19%, solar: 0.16%).

These numbers also seem consistent with the history of energy usage. When it comes to dreams of rapid renewable expansion, as Smil tells us, history is not on our side. Even traditional sources like coal, oil and natural gas took about 50 to 75 years to contribute significantly to the energy portfolio, and unlike renewables these were sources for which base load was not a problem and the technology was largely available and cheap. The latter two factors are already stacked against renewables, which makes any possibility of their expansion in just a few decades a very tenuous proposition to say the least.

Smil describes the three major challenges for renewables that make their projected rapid growth murky and pessimistic. The first factor is simply the sheer growth required to meet energy needs; it’s a point that cannot be stressed often, but the stark fact is that increasing the share of say wind from 1.19% to 50% is not simply a matter of additional investment. Given the history of energy, the whole energy infrastructure and political establishment would have to be shaken up to even try to effect this kind of change. Concomitantly world demand, especially in the developing countries, is increasing so rapidly that even fossil fuels have a hard time keeping up, so renewables are already trying to inch uphill.

Nor are these efforts likely to bear fruit in the face of what was always a constant headache for renewables: their inability to provide base load power, something which was handily accomplished by fossil fuels as soon as they appeared on the grid:

Wind and solar can contribute to the base load, but they alone cannot supply all of it, because the wind does not always blow, the sun is down at night and that supply cannot be predicted reliably. In countries such as Germany, where renewables have already grown substantially, wind and solar may supply anywhere from a negligible amount to roughly half of all demand during certain sunny and windy hours. These large fluctuations require backup from other power plants, typically coal- or gas-fired, or increased electricity imports. In Germany, all this variability can cause serious disruptions in electricity flow for some neighboring countries.

The third reason why renewables will face stiff opposition is largely a political and economic one, but it’s still one that’s daunting since it involves rejecting a way of life that has been ingrained in the economic and corporate life of this country for more than a century.

The final factor leading to a prolonged shift is the size and cost of existing infrastructure. Even if we were given free renewable energy, it would be economically unthinkable for nations, corporations or municipalities to abandon the enormous investments they have made in the fossil-fuel system, from coal mines, oil wells, gas pipelines and refineries to millions of local filling stations—infrastructure that is worth at least $20 trillion across the world.

The scenario for renewables, especially as it pertains to measurable and quick expansion, thus looks rather dismal. What can we do to make this transition at least somewhat easier? Energy efficiency for one is a very pressing need; as Smil says, “Recent studies have shown that there are no insurmountable technical problems to reducing energy use by a third, both in the affluent world and in rapidly modernizing countries, notably through efficiency gains”.

The second solution is to stop heavily subsidizing renewables. As Todd Myers wrote in the Wall Street Journal,

Why is solar popular? Huge taxpayer subsidies hide the actual cost. Other renewables receive a subsidy of about one cent per kwh, solar energy receives about 96 cents per kwh. We pay solar’s cost in the form of taxes instead of as electric rates.

Last year a study led by eminent environmental economist William Nordhaus pointed out that subsidies on green energy can actually increase carbon emissions, a good example if there was any of the law of unintended consequences.

The problem with subsidies actually highlights a bigger issue noted by Smil. We live in era where fashions often trump facts, where governments, corporations and a public which is often fed biased information love to pick favorites. Solyndra is only one example of wasteful spending and dashed hopes engendered by wishful thinking. Technology is an unpredictable and fickle beast and its development cannot be engineered by bureaucratic fiat.

One way to do this (to avoid investing in failed energy policies) is to avoid picking energy winners. Governments cannot foresee which promising research and development activities will make it first to the free market, and hence they should not keep picking apparent winners only to abandon them soon for the next fashionable option (remember fast breeder reactors or fuel-cell cars running on hydrogen?). Spending on a variety of research activities is the best strategy: Who would have guessed in 1980 that during the next three decades the best return on federal investment in energy innovation would come not from work on nuclear reactors or photovoltaic cells but from work on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale deposits?

That last line actually tells us why it is indeed dangerous to hold our dreams hostage to the promise of uncertain dreams of renewable energy. In 2000, who would have foreseen the enormous and wholly unexpected economic windfall resulting from fracking, a technology that has not only led to unprecedented energy gains and independence but has also made a measurable dent in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and power plant pollution. The tale of renewables and fracking confirms something that Niels Bohr told us decades ago: prediction is very tough, especially about the future.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Sisko 11:47 am 01/13/2014

    Mr. Jogalekar’s articles generally seem very biased, but it this case he seems to have been more reasonable in his evaluation.

    Unfortunately Mr. Jogalekar makes the situation more complicated than is appropriate.

    If renewable energy is cost effective on a long term basis it will be widely adopted. Until then it will not be widely adopted. Jogalekar misses the mark by highlighting issues that are not overly relevant. Societies transition to new technologies very quickly when something works cost effectively. Thus far, renewable power is not and is not being widely adopted.

    Link to this
  2. 2. sault 12:07 pm 01/13/2014

    “Mr. Jogalekar’s articles generally seem very biased, but it this case he seems to have been more reasonable in his evaluation.”

    Sure, only when he seems to agree with you, right?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Sisko 12:28 pm 01/13/2014

    Sault

    NO, because in this case he was generally factually correct and did not attempt to intentionally mislead as he did with his articles on and consensus on AGW. In that case he was being highly misleading. In this case he at least acknowledged the reality of economics. He wrote the article poorly, but at lease pointed out that renewable power must be cost effective to be adopted.

    Saulty- If you are honest, you will note that what I have written here regarding AGW has been proven true over time. You do not seem to like the truth, but to me that is what matters.

    Unlike you, my position can change with new or better data. If the climate models used by the IPCC matched observed conditions, I would change my position. Unlike you, I actually have looked at the outputs of these models for several years and realized long ago that they were unsuitable for for their intended use.

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  4. 4. phalaris 12:40 pm 01/13/2014

    Sault -
    we’re still waiting for you to explain why it is that renewables only need 10% backup.

    Link to this
  5. 5. rkipling 1:35 pm 01/13/2014

    The good Dr. can expect many complaints from those who disagree. This should be a forum for exchange of ideas, not an echo chamber to reinforce our beliefs.

    Link to this
  6. 6. sethdayal 1:56 pm 01/13/2014

    Keep in mind that France went from zero to 80% dirt cheap clean and green nuclear in a space of 10 years. If we could just get past the corruption in the west, we could do the same instead of waiting for the Chinese to teach us lesson destroying our economies.

    “(remember fast breeder reactors or fuel-cell cars running on hydrogen?).’

    Yup remember the IFR cancelled because Big Oil started paying off Bill Clinton. How the world would be a better place if we had started building those.

    “Spending on a variety of research activities is the best strategy: Who would have guessed in 1980 that during the next three decades the best return on federal investment in energy innovation would come not from work on nuclear reactors or photovoltaic cells”

    Actually with those Big Oil payoffs to Clinton pretty well all research in advanced nuclear came to an abrupt halt. China now is using that old US technology 20 years later to build a nuclear industry to will cripple the west.

    ” but from work on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale deposits?”

    Actually this is a false return as it turns out that cost is kept artificially low by Big Oil dumping in an effort to phase out coal and nuclear. The cost of fracked gas is double its current cost.

    It’s also a false return as the massive Big Oil propaganda effort through outright purchases of media, government and all our politicians, promotes the junk science concept that gas has half the carbon content of coal, when real science tells us that the effect of production to delivery methane leaks makes gas a worse GHG producer than coal.

    The return may be extinction as the fast approaching AGW extinction event is unabated.

    Google “Scientists Consider Extinction : Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?”

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  7. 7. Noone 2:16 pm 01/13/2014

    .

    “It is indeed dangerous to hold our dreams hostage to the promise of uncertain dreams of renewable energy”.

    Wow, truthtelling for a change!

    .

    Link to this
  8. 8. PTripp 2:40 pm 01/13/2014

    Facts beat agendas in any fair discussion.

    Government needs to get out of ‘picking winners and losers.’ Most of that ‘picking’ has proven to be more about political paybacks at taxpayer expense, than supporting promising technology.

    Subsidizing any energy technology upsets reality. Subsidizing research leads to breakthroughs and improvements. Those that work will be rewarded in the free market, provided the Government allows it to by staying out of the market.

    If we started building nuclear plants again here in the US we could keep the AGW cabal and most honest Grennie Meanies happy. Research on Nuclear hasn’t stopped. Some real innovations have been made such as modular designs that are virtually impossible to meltdown without sabotage that includes introducing more fuel.

    Certification of new nuclear technology in the US is moving at a snail’s pace seemingly in the hope that it will go away. Until we get a new administration in the US that really does want energy independence, affordable energy, and yes, cleaner energy new nuclear power in the US will remain a dream. Right now the only market for the new technologies is export of our technology.

    What a shame. Safe, clean power we could build today. That would give solar, wind, and other renewables – probably some waiting to be invented – a chance to mature, as well as picking up the slack when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

    If you want solar and wind to compete, the research dollars should really be going to storage and transmission. Two of the biggest strikes against solar and wind are the amount of land required and transmission losses. It can’t be produced where it’s used, so most is lost in transmission. If transmission losses could be reduced all power generation would win.

    Just for fun, I wonder how much heat is given off in power transmission losses. Sault?

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  9. 9. PTripp 2:44 pm 01/13/2014

    P.S. It’s nice to see an article like this in SA again. One that relies on facts and figures instead of agenda bias.

    Link to this
  10. 10. rdholland 2:54 pm 01/13/2014

    Of course fracking has been around for a long long time. The innovation is actually with horizontal drilling. With HD the amount of the “bore hole in the pay zone” is much much greater than with just vertical drilling. Fracking has always been a method that allows vertical wells to produce or increase their production. But with a vertical (only) well, there may only be a few hundred feet of bore in a gas/oil producing formation whereas with HD you can have thousands and thousands of feet of bore in the producing formations. That makes fracking much more productive.

    The oil companies saw the potential of fracking of HD wells. And as the author notes, there is no massive infrastructure needed. Well, other than additional refining capabilities and a perhaps a few new pipe lines but even lacking those the HD boom is on and significant. And despite what some may think, this has cut the price of gas at the wellhead greatly.

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  11. 11. sault 3:44 pm 01/13/2014

    Here’s Mr. Smil’s argumet in a nutshell:

    “Renewables are new, have much lower market share compared to fossil fuels, which have huge political connetions and trillion$$$ in stranded assets that they won’t want to let go of anytime soon.”

    None of these arguments fundamentally highlight any problems inherent with renewable energy and instead, they all basically describe the powers of incumbency that fossil fuels rely upon. Looking at it from the opposite way, if renewable energy had been getting billion$$$ in direct and indirect government subsidies for over a century, had the global economies of scale like fossil fuels, had the political connections and constituencies of fossil fuels and had basically caused the modern world to be built around them, then slurping dino juice out of the ground and trying to make a market of it, especially with the technology they had to start out with like scooping up oil with buckets a la “There Will be Blood”, then OF COURSE it would be a tough road ahead for them.

    This article also ignores a few key facts. Renewable energy is growing like crazy. Some countries are experiencing 70 – 100% growth rates in wind and solar installations or more. To ignore the very real contributions wind and solar are making all over the world just to make government investment in them look silly ensures that the whole picture is not being taken into account. And those government investments haven’t had a chance to entirely play out either, so it is very premature to make any sweeping judgments about them. I mean, who would have known that all the money the government spent developing nuclear power up until the early 70′s would result in billion$$$ in bailouts and bad debt, something Forbes Magazine called “The greatest managerial disaster of the 20th Century.”?

    I touched on this earlier, but this article makes no mention of the 100′s of billion$$$ in damages that fossil fuel pollution inflicts on the U.S. economy every year. This is the LARGEST indirect subsidy and it is totally unfair to bring up un-sourced and unrealistically high subsidy numbers for solar power or ANY other power source without also discussing all the unfair benefits fossil fuels enjoy. And yeah, that “about 96 cents per kwh” subsidy that solar PV supposedly receives is just cooked up by a Wall St. Journal writer with an extreme bias against renewable energy. In light of the facts, this number breaks down:

    “The ARRA grant program allowed investors in new qualifying facilities to choose an upfront grant in lieu of the longstanding 10-year production tax credit that was also available, but which became less attractive to developers as the market for financial instruments based on tax credit streams withered following the financial crisis. Though the two options have roughly similar value to investors and cost to the government over the life of the projects, the grant program front loads the government’s support for covered projects in the year that the grant is awarded. If the wind and solar plants that took advantage of the grant program during the financial crisis had instead utilized the production tax credit program, the subsidy value reported in FY 2010 would have been much smaller, reflecting only the credit for up to one year of generation.”

    Yes, he’s trying to fool you into thinking that 10 years of support can be divided by 1 year of production and give a result that makes any sense.

    I just want Ash to let us know why he only decided to tell on (incomplete) side of the story…

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  12. 12. Carlyle 3:48 pm 01/13/2014

    If SA keeps publishing articles like this I will consider becoming a subscriber again, after a 30 year break. Will not need to post comment so often either, refuting false claims. A breath of fresh air on all counts :)
    Seriously, SA has begun publishing more articles like this recently. Do they detect a wind change? The man in the street has woken up to the fact that he has been conned & it is costing him big time.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sault 3:56 pm 01/13/2014

    phalaris,

    How many times do I have to post this and how many times do you have to ignore it before you accept the label of “denier”?

    “EVIDENCE SHOWS WIND FARMS DON’T NEED FOSSIL FUEL BACK-UP

    It has become an article of popular faith that building wind farms also involves constructing fossil-fuelled power stations for back‑up when the weather is calm. As a result, some opponents go on to say, wind turbines do little or nothing to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

    Now the National Grid has studied what actually happens in practice, with explosive, if surprising, results. Between April 2011 and September 2012 – its head of energy strategy, Richard Smith, told the Hay Festival – wind produced some 23,700 gigawatt hours (GWh) of power. Only 22GWh of power from fossil fuels was needed to fill the gaps when the wind didn’t blow. That’s less than a thousandth of the turbines’ output – and, as it happens, less than a tenth of what was needed to back up conventional power stations.

    It proved to be much the same with emissions. Wind saved nearly 11 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over that 18 months; standby burning of fossil fuels only reduced this by 8,800 tonnes, or 0.081 per cent.

    Not surprisingly, given these figures, no new fossil‑fuel power station has been built to provide back‑up for wind farms, and none is in prospect.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/10091645/The-badger-cull-is-no-black-and-white-issue.html

    If you bothered to read the evidence I present, you would know that renewable energy doesn’t even need “10% backup”. Let me repeat what the article said one more time for emphasis: It’s ACTUALLY “less than a thousandth of the turbines’ output – and, as it happens, less than a tenth of what was needed to back up conventional power stations.”

    Does this clear things up?

    Link to this
  14. 14. Sisko 4:04 pm 01/13/2014

    Sault

    You are so, so silly.

    You write- “they all basically describe the powers of incumbency that fossil fuels rely upon.”

    My response- It is just economics. It is only in your pea brain looking for conspiracies that it is due to fossil fuel incumbency. If renewable power is cost effective, it will be very widely adopted. New technologies that work better than old technologies get adopted quickly. Do you still have a CRT television????

    In the US if renewables were cost effective they would be used by everyone. They are not and this time, so widespread use in not happening.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sault 4:17 pm 01/13/2014

    How’s this for a sensible approach:

    1. Level the playing field in energy markets by incorporating the negative impacts of pollution and climate change into the energy sources that cause them. Strict pollution laws (ignoring all the bellyaching from industry about a nonsensical “war on coal” and other PR buzzwords too) and a reasonable carbon tax would be the end products.

    2. Phase out energy subsidies. Fossil fuels and nuclear power have had decades to get their act together and are immensely profitable (again, only when ignoring external costs), so their subsidies should be cut first. This also means repealing the Price Anderson Act and making utilities building nuclear power mostly responsible for the financial risk of building plants (which is quite high) instead of being able to offload these risks onto their customers via “Cost Recovery” and other financially opaque practices. Renwable energy tax breaks can be phased out a decade later to partially counteract the century of supports fossil fuels have enjoyed. Letting renewable energy tax breaks expire every other year like we have been just injects more uncertainty into the market and is ANOTHER disadvantage holding back renewable energy that traditional energy sources do not have to contend with.

    3. Fund research into promising technologies. More efficient and cheaper solar cells, wind turbines, nuclear reactors, etc. They’re all good and only the government has the long-term goals and wherewithal to fund R&D on this level.

    Whatever comes out on top wins. Right now however, the government is picking winners by allowing fossil fuels to offload the costs of their pollution onto everyone, making energy markets extremely unfair.

    Link to this
  16. 16. Sisko 4:46 pm 01/13/2014

    Sault
    You wrote what you BELIEVE makes sense for policy and did not use insults so I will address your ideas based upon the merits (in my opinion).

    Sault’s idea 1. Level the playing field in energy markets by incorporating the negative impacts of pollution and climate change into the energy sources that cause them.

    My issue with sault’s idea- Society seems to have already determined what products should have additional costs applied to them due to their pollution. Sault believes that additional costs should be applied to fossil fuels in order to make renewable power more competitive in comparison. Your BELIEF has not been accepted by the American society. Sault BELIEVES that fossil fuels should get additional taxes, but what about pollution associated with extracting materials for batteries, solar panels etc. The determination by sault seems pretty arbitrary. Why isn’t it better to allow those at the local level to determine whether they believe what is being done to their location is sufficient “pollution” to have it regulated or taxed?

    2. Phase out energy subsidies.

    My issue with sault’s idea- I don’t have a problem with eliminating the small tax breaks that US extraction companies get in accelerated depreciation. It is not a significant factor in the overall marketplace. Sault’s idea to eliminate the indemnity for the companies that design and build nuclear power plants does not seem to make sense. It would mean no such plants would ever be built or that they would only be build by shell corporations with very limited assets. The only case where these companies should be indemnified should be for damage due to “acts of god”. I see no reason why renewable power should get a tax break today from the federal government.

    3. Fund research into promising technologies.

    My issue with sault’s idea- No issue as long as basic research is what is funded by the government. Private industry can and should apply the results of that basic research to designing and delivering products that people want. Additionally, you can only afford so much basic research. The US currently spends about 33% more than it generates in revenues. Tough choices need to be made and they will be painful and made more painful if delayed.

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  17. 17. Carlyle 4:51 pm 01/13/2014

    sault says: “EVIDENCE SHOWS WIND FARMS DON’T NEED FOSSIL FUEL BACK-UP
    he quotes a newspaper article when he demands ‘peer Reviewed’ papers from others.
    How he thinks blatant garbage like this bolsters his argument is a mystery to me. He is also fond of holding Germany up as an ideal example of the benefits of wind & solar. Germany had a week during December when the wind did not blow & the sun did not shine. 23000 wind turbines idle & 1 million non producing solar installations. Where did the backup power come from? Coal, Gas & Nuclear.

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  18. 18. sault 5:17 pm 01/13/2014

    Carlyle,

    Power grid operation numbers are not something that takes scientific studies and peer review to determine. Either the wind farms only needed 0.1% backup or they didn’t and this can be proven by just looking at the numbers. Since you have presented ZERO evidence that these figures are wrong and have instead just attacked me personally, it is plainly clear that there IS no “evidence” for your position and you are merely trying to distract us from that fact.

    And you pull the same stunt with your claims about German renewable energy. You demand (and then ignore) evidence on my part yet you make unfounded claims all the time. This is a blatant double standard and you must realize it makes you look ridiculous.

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  19. 19. sault 5:41 pm 01/13/2014

    Sisko,

    “Society seems to have already determined what products should have additional costs applied to them due to their pollution.”

    No, it hasn’t. Old coal plants were grandfathered out of the Clean Air Act while fracking is exempted from the Clean Water Act all out of political favoritism and not on any scientific or health-related basis. And the damages from pollution are becoming more clear (and a lot higher) with each peer-reviewed scientific study that looks into the matter. Do you not remember the multiple studies I have posted that show coal pollution destroying $100B – $500B of our GDP every year due to higher healthcare costs, reduced worker productivity and premature death? Belief has nothing to do with it when multiple peer-reviewed papers make these damages clear as day. These costs are NOT incorporated into the price of fossil fuels, giving them a mind-boggling subsidy while making them artificially cheap and keeping down competition from renewable energy.

    “…but what about pollution associated with extracting materials for batteries, solar panels etc.”

    Two wrongs don’t make a right. However, given the fact that billions of tonnes of coal and oil are burned every year while only millions of tonnes of batteries, solar cells, etc. are made in the same timeframe (at most), the two problems aren’t even close. Sure, lets prevent pollution wherever we can, but fossil fuels generate orders of magnitude more pollution just on a mass flow basis alone. If you have ANY proof of the level of pollution from renewable energy fabrication, please share it with us. However, keep in mind that fossil fuels require that these mass flows operate continuously while compounds going into renewable energy technologies stay in place for 20 years or so before being recycled, probably into other renewable energy technologies.

    “Why isn’t it better to allow those at the local level to determine whether they believe what is being done to their location is sufficient “pollution” to have it regulated or taxed?”

    As we have seen in places like West Virginia and the toxic spill going on there, it is all too easy for large polluters just to buy off local and state governments. And the effects of that pollution are the same whether they happen in WVa or any other state. It’s not like human physiology is magically different from state to state. Secondly, pollution does not respect state borders, so if that spill was big enough, it could have leaked into Virginia or any of the surrounding states that might have more stringent laws. Why do we need to encourage a “race to the bottom” as far as pollution is concerned where states with the most lax laws become our country’s cesspools only because a few large companies had great lobbyists?

    “I see no reason why renewable power should get a tax break today from the federal government.”

    Again, how is it fair that incumbent energy sources enjoy so many direct and indirect energy subsidies while we expect upstart renewable energy to compete with them sans any support? Renewable energy provides a public good in the form of cleaner air and a more stable climate, but these benefits are not captured by the market as long as fossil fuels are allowed to pollute with abandon.

    “Additionally, you can only afford so much basic research.”

    Agreed, but look at research spent on the Space Program, computers, materials and many others. The returns on this money have been astronomical. In addition, this research helps cement the USA’s global technical leadership, and squandering that just because of the structural deficits we inflicted onto the budget is pennywise yet pound-foolish.

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  20. 20. Noone 6:02 pm 01/13/2014

    .

    More of the typical Sault Suicidal Self-hating Society. Increase the costs of energy to the middle class, so that they are no longer saving ANY of their income, trust the government to “give it all back”, and go die if you don’t like it, or the Warmers are wrong.

    A clueless detective is one who fails to see that there are “external costs” in EVERYTHING society chooses to do. Society chooses to do X, and possibly Y people have possibly Z shorter lifespans. Tough. Go find a place to live with no society that makes decisions that could be adverse to you.

    .

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  21. 21. Carlyle 6:17 pm 01/13/2014

    sault #18
    Of course sault will claim his newspaper article is gospel whereas this German report is fiction. Posting links for his benefit is a waste of time. If they do not confirm his theology, he rejects them. Judge for yourselves.
    Renewables Fiasco: Doldrums And Clouds Bring Green Electricity Production To A Halt
    Germany’s wind and solar power production came to an almost complete standstill in early December. More than 23,000 wind turbines stood still. One million photovoltaic systems stopped work nearly completely. For a whole week coal, nuclear and gas power plants had to generate an estimated 95 percent of Germany’s electricity supply.
    http://www.thegwpf.org/renewables-fiasco-doldrums-clouds-bring-green-electricity-production-halt/

    Link to this
  22. 22. nmfoss 7:55 pm 01/13/2014

    Renewable Energy: The Vision and a Dose of Reality
    http://www.theautomaticearth.com/renewable-energy-the-vision-and-a-dose-of-reality-416/

    Link to this
  23. 23. Carlyle 8:57 pm 01/13/2014

    22. nmfoss
    Should be compulsory reading for anyone in the energy planning business. Should certainly remove the rose coloured glasses. Very informative. Thanks.

    Link to this
  24. 24. outis3 9:23 pm 01/13/2014

    Only a wealthy person would think that people can always afford to act rationally in the market place, unless you consider nothing but cheapness rational. And what could be more starry eyed than thinking “our whole energy infrastructure and political establishment” is not going to be “shaken up”? If there is anything our current situation illustrates it is that markets do not have the capacity for long term planning. For one thing, there is no such thing as a free market, because there are way too many actors with enough capital to manipulate markets. Withdrawing subsidies from alternative energy reveals where this author is really coming from, and if he doesn’t realize how heavily subsidized our current energy infrastructure is and has been by government programs he must have been living under a rock. Ever heard of the highway system? I’ll bet he is only thinking in terms of power delivery over the grid, and not personal power sources either. Finally, before you start crowing about fracking or its tiny impact, come live up here where it is happening. In fact, even mentioning it as you do points to a greater interest in irritating those who disagree with you than making a real contribution to understanding.

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  25. 25. Sisko 10:32 pm 01/13/2014

    Sault

    In response to #19

    All you have written is that in your opinion that the world would be better if only additional taxes were employed in the way that you think makes sense. There are dictionary definitions for that personality behavior.

    Link to this
  26. 26. rkipling 11:30 pm 01/13/2014

    Sisko,

    He likes the attention. The worst thing you could do to him is to ignore him. I’m just sayin’.

    Link to this
  27. 27. oldfarmermac 11:34 pm 01/13/2014

    This article is skillfully written to make re the case for renewables look as bad as possible.

    “Sadly these two currently provide a tiny fraction of national energy needs (wind: 1.19%, solar: 0.16%).”

    True enough but the impression created is misleading.

    Wind doesn’t push trucks down highways like oil, but it did produce 4 per cent of the electricity generated in the United States last year.

    Germany isn’t going all out on wind and solar just because she is trying to be green for green’s sake.

    Her wind farms and turbines did indeed produce very little for the week mentioned, but there are days when they produce a quarter or more of the country’s electricity- lots of days.

    And the backup argument doesn’t hold water except for a time in there future still some years off when even more wind w and solar power will be produced- because the backup capacity already exists – it’s the same exact plants being idled back when the wind and the sun are cranking out plenty of juice.

    Germany has some coal of her own, but she realized years ago that unless she could free herself of the need to import more and more ever more expensive fossil fuels in an ever more populous world competing for an ever shrinking finite supply, she’s finished.

    Any student of the WWII knows that one of the primary reason she went to war was because she was desperately short of natural resources such as oil.

    Here in the US according to the EIA, we use over 800,000,000 tons of coal at forty five bucks a ton average price to generate electricity on an annual basis.

    Of course the savings in fossil fuel cost is not all in coal but, some of it is in natural gas- but nevertheless :

    800,000,000 tons times 45 bucks per ton times four percent is a lot of money- a lot more than we spend on subsidizing wind power unless I’m badly mistaken.

    Even allowing a fourth of these hypothetical savings to be nonexistent for various reasons and using three percent as the final factor is still a huge amount of money.

    We as taxpayers pay for the subsidy but since we are all consumers of electricity we get it back in savings achieved by avoiding the purchase of more coal and natural gas.

    And let’s not forget a few more things relevant to this line of thought:

    Existing wind farms saved us four percent of the coal and natural gas that would have been needed to generate electricity last year alone.

    These existing wind farms will save us about this much coal and natural gas for another three decades or so- annually.

    At about that time they will need new generators, blades ,and so forth but rebuilding them to like new won’t cost nearly so much as a scratch construction job.

    The price of coal and natural gas will surely go up, but the wind will still be free.

    Wind will save us another bundle by avoiding some of the pollution related health problems that are costing us an arm and a leg every year.

    The cost of wind is coming down every year and according to the EIA the leveled cost of wind is in the ballpark of price parity with coal and under favorable regional conditions lower than the cost of new coal fired generation.

    Smil is an outstanding researcher and I have no arguments with his work.

    But the author of this article is cherry picking that work in order to make the case for renewables look much worse than it actually is.

    Now I will go where people are very reluctant to go, even though it’s obvious we’re going there.

    Smil is right- renewables aren’t going to be scaled up fast enough to take the place of fossil fuels before we either fry the planet or else we run out of affordable fossil fuels.

    We’re in fossil fuel fueled biological and cultural overshoot and there are five or six as many people on this planet as it can support when the easily accessible fossil fuels are used up.

    We’re looking at an inevitable very hard crash that will arrive within the next forty or fifty years or so. There’s a slim chance we will collectively come to our senses and actually start seriously working together to save our grandkids collective bacon, but the chance is so slim as to be almost negligible in my opinion.

    If and this is a very big “if “- if we were to go at it on a wartime footing and do everything possible to build out renewables, to conserve existing fossil fuels for critical needs later on, to change the way we live to a low energy lifestyle, and to slow down and stop population growth, we could probably avoid a hard crash and an overheated planet not very well suited to our needs.

    Technically possible? Probably.

    Politically possible? Conceivably, just barely, but the odds in favor of us actually doing so are – as I said above- negligible.

    Our only real chance of avoiding the coming crash is to pray for a miracle on the political front and a couple of miracles on the technical front.

    Stranger things have happened but I’m not holding my breath.

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  28. 28. sault 12:03 am 01/14/2014

    Sisko, #25:

    Do you not understand that we DO pay MANY times more for fossil fuels than renewable energy? It’s just that the true costs show up on our healthcare bills, lower wages and slower economic growth due to all the negative effects of pollution. Why do you want people to be less healthy and less prosperous just so the fossil fuel companies can keep on polluting and offloading the costs onto the rest of us?

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  29. 29. sault 12:18 am 01/14/2014

    22. nmfoss and 23 Carlyle,

    No, this shouldn’t be read by anyone. It’s a bunch of one-sided nonsense straight out of the fossil fuel company PR book. It brings up many red herrings about renewable energy while mentioning NONE of the drawbacks of fossil fuels. Classic Propaganda.

    And the fact that the “Please Donate to our 2014 fundraiser” and banner ads are displayed more prominently than the actual “content” of the article should have tipped you off. You DO know what a shill / astroturf website looks like, right? I mean, articles titled “Smart Choices for the Coming Bust” mentioning “alternative currencies” should have tipped you off, but your ideological blinders are rather thick.

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  30. 30. sault 12:20 am 01/14/2014

    Carlyle #21:

    LOL, you think a BLOG written by The Global Warming “Policy” Foundation (a fossil fuel front-group, btw) is somehow proof of ANYTHING? Come on! It’s insulting to think we’re dumb enough to fall for propaganda straight from Exxon and Koch Industries’ PR departments!!!

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  31. 31. BethJH 1:32 am 01/14/2014

    Well, if I could (and I easily could) put in enough solar capacity on my own little suburban plot to power my own home plus enough excess to pay off my connection fees, then how is renewable energy impractical? I’m not getting that part.

    It seems to me this article neglects the opportunities of dispersed power generation. True, the prevailing paradigm is capital-intensive centralized power generation, but it need not remain that way forever.

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  32. 32. Carlyle 1:35 am 01/14/2014

    The future of solar in Germany.
    http://www.abakus-solar.us/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Pic-1.jpg

    http://clui.org/sites/default/files/ludb/ca/4775/5663328384_78b315c91a_o.jpg

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  33. 33. Carlyle 2:03 am 01/14/2014

    27. oldfarmermac You say: ‘Her wind farms and turbines did indeed produce very little for the week mentioned, but there are days when they produce a quarter or more of the country’s electricity- lots of days.
    And the backup argument doesn’t hold water except for a time in there future still some years off when even more wind w and solar power will be produced- because the backup capacity already exists – it’s the same exact plants being idled back when the wind and the sun are cranking out plenty of juice. ‘
    Exactly. Germany has to keep 100% of it’s alternative energy capacity idling in the background. 100% backup. No coal or gas or nuclear can be retired because of the billions spent on alternatives. In fact they must ensure that their backup increases in tandem with any increase in alternatives.

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  34. 34. Owl905 2:24 am 01/14/2014

    The review and the position are false-front wallpapers. There never was an expectation of fast and easy switch to low-carbon renewables. It never existed. The article lays about the usual stereotypes and monoliths to look good without being good. It has provoked the usual rubbish about pity-me nuke nuts (move to India or China, they’re adding 2/3s of the world’s nuke growth … and their pollution record is abysmal). As for the Carlyle crowd, the GWPF is a lobby site for the pro-pollution – they’re rebuttal of the Guardian doesn’t rebut, it moves the goal-posts to a future need from fossil-fuel redundancy. Their crowing over lack of input in Germany is more egg on their webface – in December storms and mild weather had wind power surge to provide over 20Gigawatts of power, a new record. Prices plummeted. But like Carlyle’s stupidity about peer-review, if someone provides a favourable link, he parrots its reference without investigating the content.
    Wind and solar have a huge challenge to integrate with the grid. It’s been known for a decade, and it will take at least another decade to sort out (throwing money or resource at it could increase the cost without altering the timeline). The ambush of Kyoto had consequences – and an additional generation of CO2 pollution-growth was one of the consequences. The disgusting part is reading comments from Carlyle, Kipling, and Sisko, treating it like that pollution load is a victory.

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  35. 35. Carlyle 3:21 am 01/14/2014

    34. Owl905 Number 1. Any solution has to be practical
    Number 2, it has to be affordable. The only long term option is nuclear. It is the useless diversions that are the problem.

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  36. 36. m 3:25 am 01/14/2014

    Cramer

    Everyone here completely disagrees….

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  37. 37. oldfarmermac 8:13 am 01/14/2014

    Carlyle your argument is so circular it’s like a dog chasing his tail; you may have noticed that the dog never actually succeeds in closing his circle.

    “Exactly. Germany has to keep 100% of it’s alternative energy capacity idling in the background. 100% backup. No coal or gas or nuclear can be retired because of the billions spent on alternatives. In fact they must ensure that their backup increases in tandem with any increase in alternatives.”

    Now I readily admit that I myself should have said” temporarily shut down for the most part” in my own comment up above rather than idled because idling implies the plant is still running like a car at a traffic light and wasting fuel.

    Most of the capacity displaced by wind and sun actually is temporarily shut down- nearly all of it in fact.

    Now- anyway you slice it Germany does not have to keep 100% capacity idling to back up wind and solar – that capacity is actually shut down temporarily for the most part.

    Just a very small portion of it is kept running as a hot spinning reserve which can be called on in a few seconds of minutes if need be the vast majority of the time.

    Clouds happen, and calms happen, but they don’t happen out of the blue without warning, and when they do there are weather forecasts to let the utilities know it’s time to haves more spinning reserve actually spinning.

    Most people don’t realize it but the generating industry must always have a hot spinning reserve burning expensive fuel no matter what the supply mix is.

    This spinning reserve was necessary in the days before wind and solar made their appearance and it would still be necessary if wind and solar power vanished in a puff of smoke.

    Renewables serve two great purposes- to reduce pollution and to conserve expensive fossil fuel.

    I can’t provide exact figures because I don’t have time to look for them, but when wind and solar are performing well on a good day and the weather forecast is favorable for the remainder of the day only a very small fraction of the renewable output has to be backed up for the remainder of the day with hot spinning reserve powered by gas or coal.

    I believe the net fuel savings associated with wind and solar are in excess of ninety percent on an annual basis in Germany.

    THis amounts to many many millions of dollars on good wind and sun days that Germany doesn’t have to earn by exporting manufactured goods and importing more coal and natural gas.

    Now- if Germany had no wind and solar power- then she would still have to have adequate generating capacity to meet her peak needs- which she does, and which has already been built.

    Wind is cheaper to run today on a leveled cost basis for the Germans than coal or gas, and the Germans- who incidentally renowned as great engineers and business men- believe that solar is going to more than pay it’s own way too- in the form of savings on their imported fuel bills.

    It doesn’t cost much to keep an old existing coal or gas plant on standby ready to start it up on a few hours notice if its needed compared to the savings achieved by using wind and solar to cut back on the coal and gas bills.

    You might find it interesting that during the very recent cold snap here in the US, wind power backed up natural gas fired generators to a huge extent when the pipeline system was maxed out and gas deliveries were threatening to run way short of actual needs.

    Short term gas prices rocketed into space for a few days.

    It cannot be repeated often enough- fossil fuels are a depleting finite resource in a world with ever more people.

    We need all the renewable energy we can get to take some of the pressure off in terms of shrinking supplies and rising prices.

    We can’t afford to wait until after the supply shrinks to the extent that we can’t afford the price because there won’t be time enough- or money enough – then- to scale up renewables.

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  38. 38. rkipling 8:33 am 01/14/2014

    Owl (party like it’s) 905,

    Suggesting that these blogs should be a forum for the free exchange of ideas hardly seems spiking the football. I didn’t hear strains of “Freudig wie ein Held zum Siegen*” in the background as I read it. That translates to something like, “Joyfully, like a knight in victory.”

    You wrote that last comment as if someone had just kicked your dog.

    “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!
    Sondern lasst uns angenehmere anstimmen,
    und freudenvollere.”*

    * Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Beethoven

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  39. 39. nmfoss 8:43 am 01/14/2014

    29. sault

    Did you actually read the article? I doubt it. If you say the content of a piece several thousand words long is somehow less prominent than any kind of small advertisement, then you can’t really even have given the page more than a cursory glance. If you think The Automatic Earth is some kind of shill site for the fossil fuel industry, you couldn’t be more wrong. We are a big picture website covering finance, energy, environment, carrying capacity, geopolitics, herd psychology etc. We are entirely crowd funded with no sponsorship of any kind (hence the fundraiser), so we are completely independent.

    We don’t do propaganda for anyone, in fact we slay sacred cows (so to speak) on all sides of debates in many fields in order to screen out ridiculous over-simplification that leads to uninformed policy decisions. We were editors of The Oil Drum (a very well known peak oil site) for a long time, describing fossil fuel depletion. We have panned unconventional fossil fuels for the ponzi scheme they are.

    The take away message is that low energy profit ratio energy sources of all kinds cannot sustain a level of socioeconomic complexity necessary to produce them, and that we must therefore anticipate a simpler, lower energy society. The sooner we make the necessary psychological adjustment to the end of growth and get over what we cannot have, the better we will be able to face the future.

    We will have a renewable energy economy, as we did before the industrial revolution, but it won’t be a technological one. High tech renewable energy is merely an extension of the fossil fuel economy that built it. Without those high energy profit ratio energy sources, we won’t even be able to maintain what we have built, and those high energy profit ratio energy sources are in sharp decline. The sun will keep shining and the wind will keep blowing, but concrete is not renewable, nor rebar, rare earth metals etc etc.

    If we are going to make sensible decisions as to how to deploy our remaining resources in the era of powerdown, they must be informed decisions. Otherwise those remaining resources will be squandered in the blind pursuit of the unattainable. For the record, I fully expect this to happen, as policy decisions are almost always uninformed. They are taken by a system mired in functional stupidity, by individuals with little freedom of action within that system, who are hostage to vested interests and mostly incapable of understanding complexity anyway. Still it is worth the effort to try to prevent that, even if the odds of success are very low.

    For more on this kind of debate, integrating finance and environment as well, try: Crash of Demand – A Response to David Holmgren (http://www.theautomaticearth.com/crash-demand-response-david-holmgren-3/).

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  40. 40. oldfarmermac 10:12 am 01/14/2014

    Hi, nmfoss,

    I used to read your site on a regular basis and I agree with almost of what you have to say here today.

    But I must say that it is altogether possible that technological civilization will survive the coming crash which absolutely will happen because we’re in overshoot.

    The world economy may crash more or less all at once when the inevitable fossil fuel crunch hits, and it’s almost inevitable that the crunch will be accompanied by wide spread hot war that might finish us off as a high tech civilization.

    I expect personally that most of mankind will perish sometime within the coming century due to population overshoot, global warming, and the depletion of non renewable natural resources.

    But overshoot isn’t going to hit all parts of the world equally, and some countries may come thru in relatively good shape if they aren’t nuked back to the stone age.

    We aren’t going to run out of oil, coal, natural gas, clean water , rare earths, or anything else in an absolute sense; they will become too expensive for our civilization to function in the usual way on a world wide basis though.

    When that happens, some of us are probably going to be able to hog a big enough share of the dregs to maintain a fairly good semblance of business as usual for quite some time.

    The United States and Canada for instance are likely to partner up for mutual defense and support in an extremely hostile world and there’s enough coal and tar sands oil in North America to last us thru a century at least unless we export too much of it.

    And during that century we can switch over to a low energy but still high tech way of life.

    I don’t want to go into the political minefield associated with immigration beyond saying that I think in the end we will close our borders once it’s obvious to the public we are faced with a real resources crunch.

    With closed borders, it’s extremely likely imo that we will see a gradually falling population.

    If so, we North Americans may be able able to get along just fine for another century on expanding renewable energy and the remains of our fossil fuel reserves.

    I’m not a technocopian by any stretch of the imagination, but in fifty years it’s almost a certainty that we will have reasonably inexpensive fusion nukes that will be reasonably safe in relation to the risks of not having them, and that we will have accommodated ourselves to extremely high priced and scarce fossil fuels.

    It’s not often emphasized but there are many millions of college grads living with their parent’s, and millions more that are still “roomies” sharing houses. Kids are giving up unaffordable cars in favor of affordable smart phones. We’re highly adaptable.

    I expect that barring our getting nuked, we will be commuting in cars that will run on battery power almost exclusively – affordable little cars with two seats arranged fore and aft and a trunk adequate to haul a weeks groceries that get well over a hundred miles on a charge and well over a hundred on a gallon of gasoline or diesel.

    Repaving a road once a decade is a trivial expense compared to building a new road from scratch. We won’t be needing many new new roads.

    Most existing steel framed and masonry buildings can be made to last a century or longer with no problems at all compared to the cost of building new.

    People love to knock the quality of modern tract houses, but if a tract house built to a modern building code code is well cared for, it will last indefinitely too.

    When it becomes obvious that it is good sense for him to do so, and necessary for him to do so, Joe Sixpack will give up his 6000 pound pickup truck dream and spend that twenty or thirty grand
    instead on a ground source heat pump, insulation, triple glazed windows, and a subcompact car that gets four times the mileage of his dream truck.

    Concrete actually is recyclable to some extent- it can be crushed and used for gravel when a new road is needed.

    Rebar is recyclable; every pound of old scrap iron in my neck of the woods has been dragged out and sold for scrap in the last few years.

    Of course most of the world won’t be nearly so lucky.

    I’m not saying that things will work out this way; but there’s a good possibility that they will.

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  41. 41. sault 10:25 am 01/14/2014

    nmfoss #39:

    I’m sorry, I was a bit mistaken. Your website doesn’t shill for the fossil fuel industry. However, renewable energy gets in the way of your “Doom an gloom, everybody save yourselves from the looming collapse!” mantra. Having something out there that promises us a brighter future just doesn’t mesh with your apocalyptic mindset and it’s also harder to squeeze donations out of people when they’re not as fearful of the future. I have to say, you have a good marketing strategy if it weren’t for all those meddling renewable energy solutions!

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  42. 42. nmfoss 11:07 am 01/14/2014

    41 sault

    You have utterly the wrong idea about what we do and why we do it, and you also couldn’t be more wrong about that brighter (techno-cornucopian) future you talk about. Are you familiar with energy profit ratios? Do you understand the level of complexity, not to mention the quantity of scarce non-renewable resources, necessary to attempt what you suggest (not to succeed, since that is not possible, but merely to attempt)? Do you understand the scale of the proposed undertaking, or the timescale? Do you know how power systems work and the consequences of failing to maintain power quality parameters? I do because my background is in power systems.

    People don’t like to admit that the modern society is not sustainable in any way, in other words it won’t be sustained in any recognizable form. The opposite of sustainable is terminal, and we’re the lucky generation that gets to find out what that actually means. It’s not an apocalyptic mindset, just an acknowledgement of reality. The sooner we do that, and then act accordingly, the better prepare we might be, and the less we might need to suffer for our turbo-changed excesses.

    I never feed the fear. This is explicitly counter-productive, as I have written many times. What we do is to explain the situation and then get on with working on the range of solutions to different aspects of the problem that are realistic, hence the discussion of alternative currencies that you derided. Alternative currencies are a partial solution to the artificial scarcity of a liquidity crunch, so we can concentrate on dealing with the real resource limitations that are non-negotiable.

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  43. 43. OgreMk5 1:43 pm 01/14/2014

    I just want to say two things after reading the OP and all the comments to this point.

    1) There are cases where I would rather have a CRT than a LCD television. Panasonic is dumping plasma displays, even though they are better than LCD/LED displays in several ways (true blacks, better color, higher refresh rate) because people aren’t buying them. They are not buying the plasma TVs because of a 10 year old myth about plasma quality. So, this is the last year of the what several electronics reviewers call the best TVs that can be bought, not because of anything except public perception.

    2) Reading the comments, it is not even possible for me to distinguish who is one which side of the argument. Both sides are writing in such a way as to render any meaningful discussion completely impossible.

    I think it would be best if everyone take a close look at what you write, the way you write it, and look as if you are an outside observer. To an untrained/ignorant observer, everyone in this thread is being rude and not supplying any evidence to support their claims (including the OP). I don’t really care who Smil is or that he’s written 30 books on energy. Henry Morris wrote over 20 books on creationism and biology, doesn’t mean he right about any of it.

    Honestly, I don’t even know what position the OP is taking here.

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  44. 44. HenryC 2:12 pm 01/14/2014

    The use of wind an solar inevitable uses up large sections of land, more than we can truly afford with the high populations levels we have. We need he land for food. We need more concentrated forms of energy production and that leaves basically nuclear and geothermal where available. Nuclear can be designed safe. We need things like he traveling wave reactor Bill Gates is supporting. Solar and wind make nice support, but will not replace concentrated supplies with a on off switch.

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  45. 45. Carlyle 2:44 pm 01/14/2014

    All this doom & gloom when all we need to do is go nuclear. If the illogical opposition to nuclear had been overcome before the new oil & gas producing techniques were developed, these resources could have been saved for the future for things like transport. Now they are likely to be squandered before the West at least wakes up. If the world does squander these resources it will be those who have opposed the only rational way of increasing energy supplies while preserving fossil fuels. You will be cursed by future generations for your ideology driven stupidity.

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  46. 46. Noone 3:34 pm 01/14/2014

    Sault Trash: “Do you not understand that we DO pay MANY times more for fossil fuels than renewable energy?”

    [Translation: And I and my ill ilk will forbid you from doing so for your own "good"]

    “It’s just that the true costs show up on our healthcare bills, lower wages and slower economic growth due to all the negative effects of pollution.”

    [Translation: Trust EPA in this regard or go to hell. China and India have NO "REAL" economic growth]

    “Why do you want people to be less healthy and less prosperous just so the fossil fuel companies can keep on polluting and offloading the costs onto the rest of us?”

    [Translation: We can have a more PROSPEROUS middle class when the real cost of energy doubles for them Oh, I forgot, and we can ALWAYS trust government to "invest" that carbon tax and eventually give it all back to us plus - plus meaning my very warmist wet dream]

    .

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  47. 47. Carlyle 3:42 pm 01/14/2014

    37. oldfarmermac
    ‘Carlyle your argument is so circular it’s like a dog chasing his tail; you may have noticed that the dog never actually succeeds in closing his circle.’
    So tell us Oh Wise One, if a coal fired power station has to be fired up after being closed down, how long will the blackouts last before it is back on line?  Even gas plants take time to get back on line. Backup schemes favour fast spool gas turbines but these are not nearly as efficient as standard. As for nuclear, you do not bother to throttle a nuclear generator back. Fuel consumption is such a minor cost it is not worth the effort.
    To ensure reliability, you can not close your backup systems down.

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  48. 48. sault 6:38 pm 01/14/2014

    HenryC,

    “The use of wind an solar inevitable uses up large sections of land,”

    The land use issue for renewable energy is moot. Wind turbines only occupy 1% of the land area in a wind “farm” while crops can be grown and livestock can graze on the other 99%. And run the numbers: if the area of Lake Mead was covered in solar panels instead of water, it would generate more than 50 times the output of the Hoover Dam. Solar works great in desert areas where we aren’t growing a lot of food anyway. Aside from that, we have Rhode Island-sized chunks of real estate sitting on our roofs and above our parking lots that’s prime territory for solar panels. Besides, don’ you think fracking, oil drilling, Tar Sands production, mountain top removal and other forms of mining take up a lot of land in their own right?

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  49. 49. sault 6:44 pm 01/14/2014

    Carlyle,

    Sorry but the nuclear industry crashed and burned in the 1970′s and 1980′s because the reactors proved too expensive to build properly and in a timely fashion. And you want to go repeating the same mistakes, wasting billion$$$ more that could have gone to more promising renewable energy solutions? And good luck selling this hill of beans in after Fukushima reminded the world how risky nuclear power can be!

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  50. 50. Sue W 7:35 pm 01/14/2014

    Ladies, please, no name-calling!

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  51. 51. rkipling 8:02 pm 01/14/2014

    Sue W,

    But the name-calling is the point for some of them.

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  52. 52. brevan 11:33 pm 01/14/2014

    Nuclear, even if the perennial problem of disposing of its lethal waste were ever solved, cannot possibly solve the global heating problem because the necessary number of plants cannot possibly be built in time, nor enough fuel refined to run them if they were built. We have mined most of the easier deposits of uranium already, and what’s left will require ever larger (and typically fossil-fuel sourced) energy inputs to refine. And the vast energy and other CO2 generating costs of security, plant construction, and the black holes of de-commissioning and radioactive waste storage put a further lie to the myth of the nuclear solution (as if any further evidence were needed – see the first sentence above). Anyone advocating nuclear as a solution is not being realistic.

    Fracking too is a short-lived phenomenon, some of whose negative aspects are slowly but surely becoming more apparent. I refer specifically to the wholesale contamination of groundwater, at a time when this resource is also becoming rarer and more precious, by a range of chemicals whose identity we are not even allowed to know. The increasing groundswell of outrage in areas being devastated by tracking also puts the future of this option into question. What really spikes fracked gas as a solution to global heating though, are the methane leaks it is generating in large quantity and which are deliberately not being measured. Methane, for those of you who persist in living under the present paradigm rock, is a greenhouse gas with an impact far larger than CO2. Vast releases of it, through fracking and through the melting of the permafrost and colossal methane hydrate ‘burps’ from the oceans, may, indeed be what tips us irreversibly into a hothouse world with oceans too acidic for most life in them now.

    It is past time for the fossil-fuel denier monkeys . . . er . . . . donkeys to stop trying to drown out inconvenient truths by braying as loudly as possible! No one said it would be easy to make this transition. What is becoming more and more obvious is that it is literally a choice between life and death. If we could gear up in a relatively few months to produce enough airplanes and liberty ships to tip the balance in WWII we certainly do the same with wind and solar, and a concomitant thrust towards energy efficiency: (http://www.alternet.org/environment/are-you-ready-100-percent-renewable-energy?paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark). Reconfiguring modern agriculture to vastly reduce its carbon footprint is another low-hanging fruit. (Google ‘Alan Savory’ on this) We can still save ourselves, but not by being pigheaded and reactionary.

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  53. 53. rkipling 1:12 am 01/15/2014

    brevan,

    I hope venting all that righteous indignation toward those lacking your superior insight makes you feel better. Failing that, your words will have no impact whatsoever. Now before you start hatin’ on our little primate cousins again, I’m fairly sure they don’t have a position on climate change one way or the other. As far as this comment section goes, I’m with them.

    This article speaks about the reality of the situation regarding renewables. I think Smil makes valid points. There is a practical limit to how fast energy sources can be transitioned even when there are no technical issues. And there are technical issues here. When I see someone comparing such a transition to WW2 military production or the moon program, that is a dead giveaway that the writer has no science background. WW2 production of military aircraft, tanks, ships, etc. is not analogous to a transition to renewables which you envision. It is pointless to try to explain to you why it isn’t analogous.

    Consider the following for a moment. The Obama administration claims to be very concerned about climate change. They have been in office longer than the U.S. participation in WW2. They talk a good game, but think about what they have actually done about CO2 emissions for example. Their actions would indicate they don’t really see it as an eminent threat. Climate change is a political talking point and an excuse to funnel money back to their political allies on mostly failed green projects, no more. If you are convinced this really is a life and death issue, you will have to look elsewhere for salvation.

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  54. 54. plankton 4:34 pm 01/15/2014

    Consumption is the problem. The average first world citizen thinks nothing of the miracles they live with, from hot and cold running water to a constant electricity supply charging dozens of useless devices. Either give it up willingly, or lose it. Either way, it can’t last. Reduced consumption patterns and energy efficiency. We are technological creatures, we can think our way out of this.

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  55. 55. TFStacy 3:02 pm 01/23/2014

    Those arguing that the cost of wind by itself should be compared to the cost of coal, gas or nuclear generation have detoured from reality. The latter sources are required to be available at some minimum level across all peak demand times of the year, between 45th parallels that means hot summer afternoons. The former’s minimum guaranteed continuous availability across those hours is about 3% of nameplate (according to MISO independent market monitor report 2012 by Potomac Economics,commissioned by NERC. Sure. Look it up.)

    Not only is the capital investment in wind redundant to dispatchable technology capital costs, wind’s behavior is parasitic to the ability of those required dispatchable plants to meet and hopefully exceed repayment terms against their capital costs.

    In other words, wind is, at best, worth the cost of the fuel it saves, or about $25to $35 per MWH in the continental US.

    Analogy: “We can subsidize fishing line which has been chopped into six inch segments until it has a price advantage over continuous reels of the stuff, but how do you fish with it?”

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  56. 56. seamuslowe53 12:44 pm 01/27/2014

    This looks like an interesting topic to study. I’ll have to look up more about the books he’s written and see what I can learn. I’ve always been interested in energy, especially renewable energy.
    -Seamus | RTC Restoration

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