Here is the latest essay by Tim Morgan in which he makes the case for wind and solar energy, and the case against electric vehicles.
The key points Morgan makes are:
- The energy cost of extracting fossil energy (ECoE) is rising, due to depletion of our best quality reserves, and this trend will continue, forever.
- Therefore, the surplus fossil energy that remains to run civilization will soon begin to decline, forever.
- To protect our civilization, which runs on energy, we must transition to the best alternatives, which are solar and wind.
- Given the scale of the project, and our limited surplus capital, it will be a serious challenge to build sufficient solar and wind to keep pace with declining fossil energy.
- Adding new electricity requirements for electric vehicles will make an already difficult task impossible.
- We need to change our expectations and lifestyles to make do with fewer and smaller fossil energy vehicles, and abandon our dreams of electric vehicles.
So far, so good. All valid points, except I wonder about the feasibility of Morgan’s key conclusion that we must substitute fossil with renewable energy.
Here and elsewhere Morgan presents data that shows increasing ECoE for fossil energy will prevent civilization from continuing as usual. He did not present here ECoE data to show that solar and wind have an advantage over fossil energy.
My expectation is that solar and wind ECoE will be worse than fossil energy because, as he points out, they are deeply dependent on fossil energy for construction and maintenance, and because solar and wind have inherently lower power densities and higher storage costs.
I also think we should view renewables as a flow rather than a stock, that must be replaced every 25 years or so when the equipment wears out, with materials that require fossil energy to produce and install.
What is the wisdom of spending all of our precious remaining surplus energy capital on a solution that will work at best for 25-50 years? Moving to solar and wind could actually worsen our predicament.
We might be wiser to invest our remaining surplus energy capital in building out a softer landing zone. For example local water systems that do not require high energy inputs, local food production, community food storage and preservation facilities, public and shared transportation, home energy efficiency, solar hot water systems, and support for small scale local manufacturing.
Choosing the correct strategy requires accurate data. I hope Morgan is able to present the full life cycle ECoE for solar and wind in a future essay.
In short, whilst the case for maximising renewables seems irrefutable, the logic supposedly backing conversion to EVs is hopelessly flawed. We need to start by looking at why renewable energy is such a good idea, before turning to why EVs are such a bad one.
The case for maximising the development of renewables (such as solar and wind power) is wholly compelling. Failure to do this would condemn the world economy to stagnation in the near-term, with prosperity deteriorating steadily in the developed world whilst making little progress in the emerging economies. In the longer term, continued reliance on fossil fuels would be a recipe for economic disaster.
Put at its simplest, investing in solar and wind power is imperative, and is one of the most important issues that society needs to address. It ranks in importance alongside tackling climate change, and raising living standards in emerging economies.
Renewables are vital because they offer the only plausible way of escaping the economic trap posed by the rising energy costs of fossil fuels. We’re not about to “run out of” oil, gas or coal, but the value that these energy sources contribute to prosperity is already coming under severe pressure.
In per capita terms, the implications of these trends are stark. Comparing 2030 with 2016, gross access to fossil fuels per person is projected to have declined by 14%. Higher ECOEs, of course, will exacerbate this problem at the net level – fossil energy per person, available for all purposes other than energy supply, is likely to be 19% lower by 2030 than it was in 2016.
A more fundamental reason for caution about the rate at which renewables output can grow is that these technologies are derivatives of fossil fuels. Building wind turbines and solar panels requires the use of materials which can be accessed only by courtesy of existing fuel sources, most importantly oil. Everything from humble steel and copper to many of the more sophisticated components relies on fossil fuel energy, all the way from extraction and processing to manufacture and delivery.
This consideration reinforces the case for developing renewables as rapidly as possible, because we need to use our dwindling legacy resources of net energy to create the alternative sources of the future. But it also adds to the bottlenecks likely to be encountered in the development process.
A further twist here is that, to the extent that they are derivatives of a fossil fuel set whose ECoEs are rising, there is likely to be upwards pressure on the ECoEs of renewables themselves. Thanks to two main factors – early-stage technical improvement (“low hanging fruit”), and economies of scale – we have become accustomed to declining unit costs in the development of renewables. Costs are likely to continue to fall, but at a decelerating rate, as the scope for ‘easy’ technical improvement diminishes, economies of scale benefits reach plateau, and the ECoE of inputs rises.
Finally, on this score, we need to note that, by 2030, renewables supply would need to multiply, not by the 3.5x projected here, but by 5.5x, just to keep the fossil fuel requirement for power generation constant at current levels. Delivering enough additional power from renewables to start reducing hydrocarbon-based generation looks extraordinarily difficult – and that’s even before we start adding to electricity demand by switching to EVs.
At this point, we need to note a number of mistaken assumptions which are sometimes made in creating a false relationship between EVs and renewables.
First, and as we have noted, EVs are not an essential driver for investment in renewables – this investment will (and must) happen anyway, even if EVs prove a blind alley.
Second, expansionary investment in renewables is not going to make EVs an appropriate strategy. Just like nuclear in an earlier era, renewables are not going to supply energy in such abundance that it will be “too cheap to meter”. We are going to need every KWH of renewable output just to keep up with growth in the baseload (non-EV) need for electricity.
Third, and unlike renewables, EVs are not going to make a positive contribution, let alone a major one, to stemming climate change. The fossil fuel currently burned in IC-powered transport will simply be displaced from vehicle engines to power stations. Battery technologies raise their own pollution and emissions issues, and some of today’s ultra-optimistic expectations for the life efficiency of batteries are already starting to look somewhat questionable.
Beyond the human fascination with the new, the shiny and the technological, the reasons why we are likely to invest huge sums of our scarce energy-legacy capital into pursuing the chimaera of EVs are simple enough.
First, leadership in government and business still fails to recognise the challenge posed by the mounting cost pressures jeopardising the energy (and hence) economic future.
Second, EVs are a form of denial over the really pressing need, which is to readdress and redesign patterns of travel and habitation that are being rendered unsustainable by energy pressures.
This implies that the push for all-out conversion to EVs is an exercise in denial, along much the same lines as the economic denial implicit in debt proliferation, pensions destruction and monetary adventurism.
We may not – yet, anyway – need to adopt a ‘one car per household’ strategy along the lines of China’s “one child” policy. But, at the very least, we need to be rethinking housing and transport patterns, and investing in incremental automotive technologies.
Leaner-burning engines, tighter (and strongly-enforced) emissions restrictions, hybrids, the increased use of engineering plastics and the imposition of a limit of, perhaps, 1.5 litres on engine sizes might be a better idea than building a new generation of heavyweight vehicles designed to harness an abundance of electricity which simply isn’t going to happen.