“Listen to the science” has become a catchphrase when discussing the future of world energy. Advocates of rapidly replacing hydrocarbons with a 100-percent renewable energy system insist that the transition has been vetted by experts. There is minimal economic risk for such a government-engineered transition, they contend, because renewable-energy technologies are advancing so rapidly.
This is far from the truth. The perpetual, outsized government subsidization of wind and solar for grid electricity speaks for itself. Ditto for the heavy, expensive batteries that ruin the economics of vehicles compared to those powered by the internal combustion engine.
Two years ago, Mark Mills’s “The ‘New Energy Economy’: An Exercise in Magical Thinking” (Manhattan Institute) memorably exposed the fallacy of Big Green’s “listen to the science.” By documenting physical realities, Mills makes it clear that the crusade to rapidly remove hydrocarbons from the global energy mix is “magical thinking.”
Mills’s study points out two core reasons why the “new energy economy” is a mirage. First, physical realities do not allow for this revolutionary change. Second, no fundamentally new energy technology can be analogized to such revolutionary inventions as the transistor or the Internet.
Building on these insights, Mills’ study documents why removing hydrocarbons from the global energy supply would not only be egregiously costly, but nearly physically impossible.
There has been a three percent decline in hydrocarbon use in the past two decades, Mills notes. But this is hardly a revolutionary shift, as greens portray, and this small reduction has required more than “$2 trillion in cumulative global spending on alternatives over that period,” much of it from government and taxpayers.
Furthermore, overall world energy demand has increased around 50 percent in the past two decades, equivalent to “adding two entire United States’ worth of demand.” Even if the U.S transitioned to a 100 percent renewable electricity, the U.S would have to enlarge the current grid system 14 times, a project that would “require industrial efforts greater than a World War II level of mobilization.”
This is not to say that wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries have not improved in recent decades—about tenfold, he estimates. But the embedded competition is better in virtually every dimension, including scalability.
A million-dollar hardware investment in wind turbines, solar panels, and oil and gas drilling rigs yields very different results over a 30-year operating period. Taking into account the “great improvements” in renewable energy technology, the wind turbines would produce 55 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) and the solar panels 40 million. The drilling-rig equivalency is 300 million kWh, producing “about 600% more electricity for the same capital spent on primary energy-producing hardware.”
The huge disparity between energy source output is not the result of a lack of technology or innovation but of “inherent differences in energy densities that are features of nature immune to public aspiration or government subsidy.” Even if wind and solar were able to reach their theoretical limits of energy-to-power, the best hydrocarbon engines currently available today achieve the same power output as wind turbines’ theoretical maximum, and 20 to 30 percent more than that of PV cells in solar.
In other words, no matter how much money or “magic” is funneled towards renewables, green energy will always be at the whim of naturally imposed physical limits.
Aside from the naturally imposed limits on renewable energy production, there are equal, if not greater, issues pertaining to the way in which these energy sources store and deliver energy. A superior energy source not only stores energy well but also is available on demand. Hydrocarbons store for “less than $1 a barrel for a couple months” and provide consumers with accessibility and reliability.
Conversely, modern batteries cost around $200 to store the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil. While the U.S has in storage around one-to-two months of national electricity demand for each hydrocarbon at any given time, battery reliance equates to “barely two hours of national electricity demand [that] can be stored in the combined total of all the utility-scale batteries on the grid plus all the batteries in the 1 million electric cars that exist today in America.”
Research labs report 200-to-300 percent improvements in the inherent performance of non-lithium batteries, but this is not even close to the potential energy of petroleum. Once again, Mills grounds his arguments in science and reality, choosing to ignore the “magic” of Big Green.
While documenting the improvements of renewable energy technologies, Mills contends that there is more reason for concern than relief. Humans can alter nature, but they cannot fundamentally change the physical properties of the natural world. Dense, mineral energies have inherent advantages, after all, a point that Vaclav Smil has exhaustively documented.
As time goes on, and the subsidies and mandates for inferior energies continue, watch residents complain about all the infrastructure required to turn dilute, intermittent energy flows into usable energy. Expect more scientists to explain the physical limitations of politically correct energies. Big Green’s “new energy economy” is really a return to energy poverty before carbon-based energies enabled industrialization.
Eschewing energy reality, the planning experts and politicians waging war on hydrocarbons will ultimately find themselves repeating the words of the Google engineers that were tasked to develop renewable energy cheaper than coal…. “We don’t have the answers.”