The Limits of Alternative Energy

Recently Talking Points Memo had a gallery of “green tech” under the heading “Gas Prices Blues? Feast your eyes on the open vistas of clean, green alternative energy sources.”

Sure, why not. And with gas prices where they are, it’s not surprising to hear calls to go after speculators or Exxon. There’s no reason not to – some small fraction of today’s high gasoline prices is likely due to speculation or artificially low supply. But finding scapegoats is a mostly-pointless exercise. Alternative energy isn’t a “solution” in the sense we’re used to, and oil companies and speculators aren’t the “problem”.

There’s a bigger uncomfortable truth here that’s completely lost in the discussion and while I’m fully in favor of moving off of oil and fossil fuels, it’s important to highlight the panoply of false solutions out there right now.

Five facts are essential for understanding our energy predicament today:

  1. Oil is critical to transportation and agriculture in the United States.
  2. Numerous reports and studies (including the Department of Energy commissioned Hirsch Report, the UK Task Force on Peak Oil, and the German Military) indicate we’re at, near, or past the point of maximum global oil production. This indicates that no matter what drilling is attempted, the world will never produce oil at a faster rate, and that after peak, global production declines.
  3. The Hirsch Report concluded that it would take a 20 year crash program to mitigate the effects of oil depletion, meaning that the crash program should have started around 1990 to avoid what they called “severe” economic impacts. Also, the mitigation program they proposed relied upon coal, heavy oil, and tar sands, all of which would exacerbate our climate problems.
  4. The industrial capacity for building alternatives is a tiny fraction of what would be needed to substitute for fossil fuels even within 2 decades, given the massive scale required. (Just to give an idea of the scale involved – per Bill McKibben’s must-read book Eaarth the sunk cost of today’s fossil fuel infrastructure is $10 trillion, and would require 10-50 years of operation for capital cost recovery.)
  5. Almost none of the substitutes provides a dense liquid fuel substitute for oil that can be used in transportation or agriculture. The only alternative that does – algae-based biofuel – is extremely far from commercial viability and requires even more land area per unit energy than corn-based ethanol.

We definitely need to work on alternatives, but we should stop pretending that they can make the problems we face go away. To give an idea of the scale involved, consider Saul Griffith’s excellent talk on climate change, where he considers what a global alternative energy infrastructure would look like, and concludes that we’d need to build a global energy infrastructure, over the next 20 years, that is roughly the land area of the continental United States. The scale of deployment we need is WWII-like, not Apollo-like.

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