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The renewability of renewable energy
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Renewable Energy Is An Illusion

Not only because of limited exotic minerals, as reported in the below article.

ALL so-called "clean energy" or renewable energy is subsidized by manufacturing and transportation equipment that wholly depends on fossil energies and which depletes nonrenewable resources.

As long as the renewable production plants do not produce excess energy for its own construction and maintenance, it is a delusive expression, like "clean coal".

AND it remains to be seen whether the technology exists to manufacture the renewable energy plants (wind mills, solar panels, hydraulic dams, geothermal, etc.) using electricity only.

The temporary glut of easy fossil energy has led mankind to the present state of horrendous overload of the planet, with too many people consuming far too much stuff per capita.

Energy is an existential threat because of (1) the human overshoot it produced, and (2) the distastrous collapse that its "sudden" scarcity will produce after Peak Oil.

A return to some state of approximate sustainability - in which we do not deplete resources faster than nature regenerates them - requires something different from chasing technology to capture carbon and substitute fossil fuels.

A sustainable society will probably be relocalised, with an absolute minimum of transportation of goods and people at low speed, where satisfaction depends on what people do during the day rather than on what they manufacture and consume.

Such a society will have to run manufacturing plant that depends on non-human energy when the wind blows and the sun shines. This means a total reorganisation and return to structures and work/time patterns that prevailed till 1750, i.e. before the advent of the steam engine.

Most modern day gadgets and mechanisation will have to disappear and be replaced by physical work.

The remaining fossil fuels should be used to make a transition to such a society, and saved for real vital equipment.

And of course: Population growth and economic expansion must be stopped and the trends reversed.

Helmut Lubbers ... 9 February 2009

This comment was submitted on Mon Feb 09 16:56:14 GMT 2009 by Helmut Lubbers to
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    Why sustainable power is unsustainable

    13:02 06 February 2009 by Colin Barras

    Renewable energy needs to become a lot more renewable – a theme that emerged at the Financial Times Energy Conference in London this week.

    Although scientists are agreed that we must cut carbon emissions from transport and electricity generation to prevent the globe's climate becoming hotter, and more unpredictable, the most advanced "renewable" technologies are too often based upon non-renewable resources, attendees heard.

    Supratik Guha of IBM told the conference that sales of silicon solar cells are booming, with 2008 being the first year that the silicon wafers for solar cells outstripped those used for microelectronic devices.

    But although silicon is the most abundant element in the Earth's crust after oxygen, it makes relatively inefficient cells that struggle to compete with electricity generated from fossil fuels. And the most advanced solar-cell technologies rely on much rarer materials than silicon.

    The efficiency of solar cells is measured as a percentage of light energy they convert to electricity. Silicon solar cells finally reached 25% in late December. But multi-junction solar cells can achieve efficiencies greater than 40%.

    Although touted as the future of solar power, those and most other multiple-junction cells owe their performance to the rare metal indium, which is far from abundant. There are fewer than 10 indium-containing minerals, and none present in significant deposits – in total the metal accounts for a paltry 0.25 parts per million of the Earth's crust.

    Most of the rare and expensive element is used to manufacture LCD screens, an industry that has driven indium prices to $1000 per kilogram in recent years. Estimates that did not factor in an explosion in indium-containing solar panels reckon we have only a 10 year supply of it left.

    If power from the Sun is to become a major source of electricity, solar panels would have to cover huge areas, making an alternative to indium essential.

    Precious platinum

    The dream of the hydrogen economy faces similar challenges, said Paul Adcock of UK firm Intelligent Energy.

    A cheap way to generate hydrogen has so far proved elusive. New approaches, such as using bacterial enzymes to "split" water, have a long way to go before they are commercially viable.

    So far, fuel cells are still the most effective way to turn the gas into electricity. But these mostly rely on expensive platinum to catalyse the reaction.

    The trouble is, platinum makes indium appear super-abundant. It is present in the Earth's crust at just 0.003 parts per billion and is priced in $ per gram, not per kilogram. Estimates say that, if the 500 million vehicles in use today were fitted with fuel cells, all the world's platinum would be exhausted within 15 years.

    Unfortunately platinum-free fuel cells are still a long way from the test track. A nickel-catalysed fuel cell developed at Wuhan University, China, has a maximum output only around 10% of that a platinum catalyst can offer.

    A new approach announced yesterday demonstrates that carbon nanotubes could be more effective, as well as cheaper, than platinum. But again it will be many years before platinum-free fuel cells become a commercial prospect.

    Fuel vs food?

    Biofuels, like ethanol fermented from maize, are the most infamous examples of the doubtful sustainability of supposedly renewable forms of energy. This time the non-renewable resource at risk is the world's arable land, Ausilio Bauen of Imperial College London said at the meeting.

    Again, there are potential solutions, but none that are ready for market. Biofuels from cellulose or even lignin canbe derived from inedible plant material and wood rather than food crops. Algae, grown in outdoor tanks, continues to attract attention, and extracting biofuel from marine algae or seaweed could sidestep land use issues altogether.

    Renewable energy technologies remain the great hope for the future, and are guaranteed research funds in the short term. But unless a second generation of sustainable energy ideas based on truly sustainable resources is established, the renewable light could be in danger of dimming.

    Copyright: Reproduced for scientific non-commercial reasons only. top

    A reader's comment from the newscientist website

    Mon Feb 09 17:19:39 GMT 2009 by John Weber

    Energy in the Real World

    Solar and Wind are not renewable. The energy from solar and from wind is available but not renewable. An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. They reproduce themselves.

    But, and a very important but, the human made equipment used to capture solar energy or wind energy is not renewable. In fact, there is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment. The glazing on a solar collector of any kind - solar thermal water, solar thermal air, and solar electric - requires energy to manufacture.

    Aluminum comes from bauxite. It takes considerable energy to refine the bauxite. When I was fourteen, I worked loading trucks in an aluminum extrusion plant. The ingots of aluminum would be heated, pushed through a die to shape, then cut and put on carts. We would take these carts and move them into a small room heated to around 400 degrees F where they were baked. Because this was Florida, we would be fairly dripping with sweat when we would go into the room to remove the cart. By the end of the day, our shirts were caked with our own salt.

    Copper also requires considerable energy to process. I saw a documentary on the History Channel show "Modern Miracles" that followed the mining of copper and the production of products. Mining, refining with both energy and chemicals, drawing the wire, and winding the wire goes into making both alternators for wind machines and motors for solar.

    There are unintended consequences to the manufacture of solar and wind equipment; including serious air and water pollution, release of deadly chemicals into the environment as well as misuse of humans in mining and processing applications. Besides these unintended consequences, which are critical to a future humane and livable world, there is an accounting method that is important to making energy choices.

    There is an important accounting system connected to energy decisions. Any system must give more energy than it takes to create/generate. This accounting system is Energy Invested on Energy Returned (EroEI). When it costs more to pull oil from the ground than we get back, then it is over for that well. On any technology, this has to be a main consideration. Many have heard that it takes as much energy to make ethanol as it provides. This makes it a dead end street.

    How many units of energy does it take to make a hot air solar collector or a hot water solar collector or a wind generator or a solar electric panel? Each of the components (aluminum, glass, insulation, wires, pumps, blowers, solar cells, etc.) needs to be computed for the accumulated energy cost of the particular technology. This must be compared to life span energy output of the technology. It is important to realize we are talking about the ENERGY output. The financial payback cost is actually secondary in this perspective. Perhaps these energy devices need an energy content label like food has a calorie label.

    If a system requires a 1000 units of energy to manufacture and it returns 50 units per year than it takes 20 years for the ENERGY payback. It could take considerably more years for the energy payback. Most "renewable" systems are heavily underwritten by fossil fuels. And many of the auxiliary parts of various "renewable" technologies (the batteries, the high tech control systems) are the weak link for long-term use.

    Energy conservation by insulating, weather stripping, and cutting back are the first line of defense toward energy independence and self-reliance. It is important for the future of energy use to be clear on these matters. These technologies (solar air panels, solar electric panels, wind, etc.) can be looked at as transitional. This means they can help this generation and maybe the next generation ease down the slope to minimal fossil fuels. I am not saying don't use these devices. I am suggesting we use them wisely.

    One approach to the use of solar and wind capturing equipment is to realize they can be constructed now while fossil fuel energy is available and relatively cheap. This is a way of creating a bank account of energy by using the existent energy to build equipment that can provide energy in the future. John Michael Greer explores this idea well in The Long Descent. As I indicate above, these technologies can help us ease down the slope towards a world of minimal or no fossil fuels.

    As fossil fuels become less available, judicious use of the remaining reserves becomes even more important. We must come to realize that fossil fuels (as well as concentrated sources of minerals) are a gift from the earth and previous to life. To mistakenly call solar or wind energy renewable and include the capturing mechanisms leads to both false hopes and perhaps poor allocation of limited fossil fuels and funds. top