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By Robert Rapier on Sep 23, 2013 with 37 responses

Nonrenewable Renewables?

The Energy Experts Reconvene at the WSJ

Generally when I find myself having to write a follow-up post to something I wrote, it’s because I obviously didn’t make my points clearly enough. I found this to be the case during a lively Twitter discussion following my latest contribution to the Wall Street Journal’s (WSJ) Energy Experts Panel. But I love these sorts of discussions because they help me hone the message I am trying to deliver.

This week the WSJ  began publishing the latest round of answers to questions that were submitted to their energy panel several weeks ago. The first question answered this week was: What is the single biggest misconception people have about renewable energy in the U.S.?

First, if you don’t know about the WSJ Expert Panels, I explained that in some detail here. Essentially, the WSJ has groups of experts in different fields, and they pose questions on various topics. We are asked to write ~ 300-word answers to these questions, which often means leaving out caveats and/or clarifications. The answers are more detailed than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, but some topics leave a lot of issues unaddressed with just a 300-word answer.

What is Renewable Energy?

In a nutshell, my answer to the question is that the biggest misconception is the extent to which many of our “renewables” aren’t strictly renewable. To explain what I mean by that, I started out by defining “renewable.” What does renewable energy mean? This question isn’t as simple as it sounds.

For example, if a plant grows, is harvested, and is replanted, we might say that is renewable. But what if we managed to get 10 times the yield by application of fossil-fuel based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that at the same time depleted a fossil aquifer? Is it still renewable? According to the way I view renewable energy, then this source is now only partially renewable, which means it can only be sustained for so long. Yes, there is still a renewable component, but now we have introduced nonrenewable aspects to provide greater yields. Could we still get 10 times the yield without the nonrenewable components? Maybe, maybe not.

My answer sparked a Twitter discussion which revolved around the definition of renewable energy. At one point the Wikipedia definition of renewable energy was cited, and it says “Renewable energy is generally defined as energy that comes from resources which are continually replenished on a human timescale such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat.”

Nonrenewable Energy from Renewable Sources

Of course I don’t dispute that the energy that arrives on earth from the sun is a renewable source, but solar power may not be renewable energy. It all depends on how we harvest it. This is my point. As a hypothetical example, assume that we can only produce solar power by utilizing some rare resource that will run out in 3 years. Under that scenario, is solar power renewable? Of course the sun will still shine, but if we have no way to continue to harvest and use that power then solar power via that particular method isn’t renewable, because truly renewable energy production can’t deplete critical resources (in my opinion).

Nitpicks about definitions aside, why do we care about renewable energy? Because in theory we could continue to harvest it in perpetuity without depleting nonrenewable resources and without damaging the environment. It would be energy that we could use that wouldn’t put future generations at any sort of disadvantage. But insert important nonrenewable components into that chain of gathering, processing, and delivering renewable energy and you have a system that fails that “in perpetuity” test. Thus for me, that would be a renewable energy system that isn’t sustainable, which means it isn’t fully renewable, Wikipedia definitions notwithstanding. (Note that such a system may still be better than the status quo; it just depends on the details).

Now here is an important caveat that was lost on some. My target here wasn’t wind and solar. They were used merely as examples to show that pretty much every energy system has nonrenewable aspects. Unfortunately, some sought to interpret my article as an affront to wind and solar. In fact, some interpreted my article as a call to cease development of renewables and to maintain the status quo. I suppose these sorts of misinterpretations should no longer surprise me. The WSJ did choose a provocative title though, and that helped set the tone as if to say that my premise was that no renewable is really renewable.

But not all renewables are created equally. As we incentivize and subsidize renewable energy, we have to consider important questions, like 1). How long before any nonrenewable inputs are depleted?; 2). Does the production of the nonrenewable inputs damage the environment?; 3). Are there alternatives that we could ultimately use instead of the nonrenewable inputs? Because in many cases the switch from 80% renewable energy production to 100% renewable energy for a particular energy technology may be simply a matter of economics, and not necessity. I am concerned about the cases where it may be more necessity, in which case we have a nonrenewable renewable, or a pseudo-renewable.

How Renewable are Biofuels?

My real target here is certain biofuels that are thoroughly dependent upon fossil fuels — particularly natural gas — but that are all treated as equally renewable. For instance, consider a hypothetical situation in which production of 1 BTU of some specific biofuel required more than 1 BTU of petroleum. In that case, we would have a situation that is worse than the status quo, but people could pat themselves on the back because we are using “renewable” energy. (I understand that a certain greenhouse gas reduction is supposed to be achieved before renewable sources qualify for subsidies and mandates under EPA definitions, but those reductions are based on modeling assumptions that may prove invalid under actual production conditions).

There are varying degrees of renewable, and in fact the scale doesn’t merely go from 0% to 100%. In the previous example, if 1 BTU of biofuel required 2 BTUs of petroleum to produce, that biofuel is worse than 0% renewable. In that case you would be better off just to use the petroleum directly. Likewise, if 1 BTU of a biofuel could displace (through synergies) more than 1 BTU of petroleum, you could argue that it is better than 100% renewable. Yet in both of these cases, that BTU of the biofuel may be considered to be totally renewable.

The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that even partially renewable is generally preferred over totally nonrenewable. I say “generally” because it depends on the factors that make that resource “partially” renewable. Whale oil, for instance, is a renewable fuel, but the more whale oil we decide to consume the less renewable it becomes. At some point (setting aside the ethical arguments) the argument will become “OK, nonrenewable in this case is better, because it buys some time to find something more renewable than whale oil.”


My objective in writing articles like this is to argue that we don’t want to swap one unsustainable economy for another. We want to consider critical nonrenewable inputs in the production of renewable sources, and we don’t want to reward those that are overly reliant on those nonrenewable inputs. We don’t want our energy sources — renewable or nonrenewable — to place future generations at a significant disadvantage.

The take home message is not “Renewables are just as bad as nonrenewables since they ARE really nonrenewables.” It may be that in some cases this is true, but it isn’t true that all renewables can be so broadly classified. The take home should be “All energy sources have trade-offs, and it is important to understand all sides of those trade-offs.”

Link to Original Article: Nonrenewable Renewables?

By Robert Rapier. You can find me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.

  1. By Roy Wagner on September 24, 2013 at 7:14 am

    Thanks for posting this I can see where people may consider this anti-renewable even though it’s not.
    A comparison with fracking or unconventional oil and gas might be useful the EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) is also ignored.
    When estimates for production and size of reserves are reported.

  2. By juninhobaiano on September 24, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Excellent article, Robert. I like how you have defined certain types of biofuels as natural gas “laundering”… Therefore, here’s an interesting question:

    If 1 BTU of biofuel required exactly 1 BTU of domestic natural gas to produce, and we know that the end product would displace 1 BTU of imported petroleum, does this natural gas “laundering” serve US energy security interests, even though the biofuel could now be classified as 100% nonrenwable?

    • By Robert Rapier on September 24, 2013 at 11:07 am

      Interesting question. I suppose in that case you could say that it would indeed improve energy security, but would do nothing to improve the global sustainability picture. There are lots of examples like that; coal-to-liquids would be one that actually takes something like 2 BTUs of coal to make 1 BTU of liquid fuel. In that case you accelerate the depletion of coal and accelerate carbon emissions while improving domestic energy security.

      • By juninhobaiano on September 24, 2013 at 11:22 am

        Thanks for your answer. A more concrete example is Celanese’s Natural Gas-to-Ethanol process which as advertised is entirely nonrenwable, yet all-in costs $1.75/gallon according to their calculations. But they cannot blend any of their product with gasoline because it is not “renewable” under the RFS, yet “laundered” ethanol from agricultural feedstock (where the fossil inputs do not negate the “renewable” classification under the law) are totally legit. Something needs to change…

        • By Robert Rapier on September 24, 2013 at 11:25 am

          Yes, I know about the Celanese process and the situation there. This is the sort of example the illustrates the issue of calling something renewable when it is really laundered natural gas, vs something that is directly from natural gas. Incidentally, I worked for Celanese for my first 7 years out of college.

    • By vince schutt on September 24, 2013 at 11:03 pm

      To answer this question you need to evaluate the opportunity of the cost of the land use. What are you not making because you choose to make a BTU of biofuels? It’s probably X amount of corn ( a little help here).

  3. By ben on September 24, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Amen, Mr. Editor! Another example of the inconvenient truth that there is no free lunch and that trade-offs routinely accompany the choices that we make about energy production and consumption.

    Regrettably, we are constantly massaged by the political class to believe that there are options offering an expedient “solution” to otherwise difficult problems that might require a measure of sacrifice or, at least, adjustment by an interested party. Rather than acknowledge the necessity for the inevitable pinch that accompanies change, we fend off the unwanted adjustment while pressing on with a business as usual approach.

    We would de well to embrace a net assessment of the benefits gained vis-à-vis the resources expended to achieve such benefits. The EROEI calculation offers one example of a discipline that helps provide proper signals to the efficient allocation of limited inputs in the hope of optimizing on the potential outputs. Such an exercise offers a less politicized method of assessing what constructive role public policy might contribute to supporting the most effective incentives to achieve our collective benefits. Alas, there are those with narrower interests who seek little more than to preserve their own advantages at a higher cost than is otherwise required or justified. The political class in our Capital City and state capitals have honed their art-form of special interest advocacy to the point that the tail is clearly wagging the dog.
    I applaud Robert for defending a contrary perspective to that of the politicians; he has consistently and candidly offered his readers no-nonsense insights on the logical trade-offs that accompany most energy development choices. Most of these choices are not particularly simple or painless. They often involve sacrifices that promise to gore someone’s ox and that naturally triggers the lobbying campaign in defense of preserving the status-quo. Washington policymaking has become little more than a caricature of the very insular routine of taking care of your sponsors
    logic be damned. What was that line by Jefferson (or was it Mencken?) about
    getting the government you deserve?
    Hopefully we are finding our way out of the malaise and into the sunlight of rational judgment about where we will invest our limited resources for the best possible
    results. Energy affordability and security is, and shall remain, the sine qua non of a competitive America and that can only be achieved with an unemotional and highly disciplined commitment to making wise choices about our future goals.
    Thanks, again, to RR for (like it or not) giving it to us without all the BS.

  4. By GreenEngineer on September 24, 2013 at 7:46 pm


    For what it’s worth, when I first encountered your essay at the WSJ site, I also thought the author was trashing on renewables generally. Then I realized that you were the author, so that could not possibly be your intent. Nevertheless, that is how it came across.

    Re-reading it, I think my interpretation arose from the fact that you juxtaposed corn ethanol and wind power the way you did. Certainly, either technology has the potential to be destructive and/or fail the “renewables” test in a number of ways. But (as you know) the differences in EROEI and scalability are huge, and the article made no mention of that difference.

    I understand you were operating under a tight word restriction, and I understand and agree with your basic point. I just wanted to make sure that you understood how the article came across. Those who interpreted it as bashing on renewables were incorrect relative to your intent, but I don’t think they were being unreasonable to see it that way.

    • By Robert Rapier on September 24, 2013 at 8:24 pm

      “I understand you were operating under a tight word restriction, and I understand and agree with your basic point.”

      I was honestly blindsided, but I can see that there were 2 contributing factors. The first is that the WSJ gave it a provocative title, which would immediately put readers in a certain frame of mine as they read it.

      The 2nd was that the article was modified from a much longer theme that I wrote about in my book. In that article, I made just a passing mention of wind and solar to show that there were nonrenewable inputs in all sorts of renewables. But then I went on to make it clear that for some renewable sources, the nonrenewable inputs are quite high. When I cut the essay down to the 300 word limit, I left the wind and solar mentions in there, and as a result they seemed disproportionately important to the point I was making, when they weren’t.

      For what it’s worth, my climate change piece is up today, and I think it will anger an entirely different group of people:

      Check the comments that are being left on the climate change essays, and you will see what I mean.


      • By GreenEngineer on October 1, 2013 at 3:35 pm

        I would be curious to get your reaction to my comment on that article.

        • By Robert Rapier on October 1, 2013 at 9:12 pm

          Well, my observation is that there is a pretty slim hope of solving this cultural problem, but as I said at the end hope isn’t a very good strategy. I continue to work in areas that I think have a chance of making some difference, but the magnitude of the problem is just so large that it’s really daunting. Yes, it may be a cultural problem but it pervades every developed and developing country in the world.

          • By GreenEngineer on October 4, 2013 at 9:52 pm

            I agree that hope is a poor strategy. And, like you, I’m doing work that I think will have a positive impact on the problem.

            But I am also very clear that what I am doing is not nearly enough – even if there were a million of me, and I worked 100 hour weeks (which I do not), it wouldn’t be enough. Because while I believe we can maintain a high standard of living with relatively low energy inputs, it is also very clear that there is no way to maintain our current lifestyle or patterns of development (including perpetual growth) without a major new source of highly concentrated, high EROEI energy – which I am sure you would agree is passing unlikely.

            I suspect you find yourself in a similar position. You know enough to know that there is no silver bullet, nor anything that can plausibly replace the convenience, abundance, and energy density of oil and gas.

            Thus I am left with the conclusion that I must hope for, and work for, cultural change. It’s a slim hope, yes. It’s not very likely, granted. But it’s a heck of a lot more likely – because it doesn’t actually require violating any physical laws – than the discovery of an energy source that will let us get away with continuing business as usual.

        • By Adrienne Adams on October 4, 2013 at 4:42 pm

          Green Engineer,

          I follow you. We are headed for unimaginable upheaval of the world as we know it, and the only question is whether it will result in catastrophic collapse or controlled contraction.

          • By GreenEngineer on October 4, 2013 at 9:56 pm

            Well, change is always hard to imagine before it happens. And change is the one constant in life.

            That said, I don’t necessarily agree that our only alternative to collapse is contraction. It depends on what you are talking about contracting. There are ways to provide many (most) of the features of our current standard of living (if not our lifestyle – they are different things) with much, much lower intensity energy and resource use. We just have to stop being dumb about it.

            Our current patterns of unsustainable development are beyond stupid, because they are inconsistent with physical and ecological reality. But I think we’d all be surprised with what we could accomplish as a species if we stopped trying to ignore or deny natural limits, and started trying to work within them..

            • By Adrienne Adams on November 24, 2013 at 7:32 pm

              I think a convincing argument can be made that civilization is addicted to fossil fuels. Thus when discussing the “cultural problem,” it is helpful to realize that we are dealing with a culture that exhibits addictive behavior. We cannot imagine life without our drugs, oil & coal; we cannot see that continued use of our drugs is counterproductive to our own well-being; we cannot accept rational arguments that would make it obvious that our addiction is slowly killing us and all the things that we love. Our lives are rapidly becoming unmanageable, and our self-loathing rises with each new bout of excess. We cannot continue, and yet we cannot stop.

              My assertion that industrial civilization is headed towards collapse is based on many years of observing this addict’s behavior. As a youth in the 70’s I believed that we would soon embrace the ideas of ecology and conservation — but forty years later humanity is farther than ever from having a non-exploitative relationship with our planet.

              But we have not yet hit bottom. We still think there is a way for us to continue to get what we crave, free of pain or consequence. We believe technology will find a way for us to keep fixing — we will invent substitutes for our favorite drugs — biofuels or solar power will still get us high, not quite as high as we did with oil and coal, but high enough so that we don’t really have to change how we live.

              We refuse to take responsibility for the destruction and death we are inflicting on our planet and on each other. We blame our addiction on our circumstances, and say we have no choice but to live as we do. We believe that it will all turn out fine, that what we have thrown away will magically reappear. Even when we finally do admit that we have a problem, we will still be faced with the world we have wrought.

            • By GreenEngineer on November 26, 2013 at 12:27 pm

              Our craving for fossil fuels is nothing new or surprising or even inherently bad. It is a natural consequence of being living creatures, that we try to accrue energy to ourselves. Any creature that behaved otherwise would have been edited out by evolution.

              That said, humans are unique among the animals in that we have self awareness and the ability to coordinate and plan. In theory, that means we have the ability to choose to temper this hunger – a behavior that was once necessary for species survival which has become an existential threat to our survival. Whether or not we can do that in reality is the cultural problem which I make reference to.

            • By Adrienne Adams on November 26, 2013 at 1:00 pm

              I’ll stick with my addiction analogy. Human use of fossil fuels are not in any way natural, as they allow us to monopolize an unprecedented amount of the world’s energy capacity via ancient, extremely refined, and energy-dense sources of energy. Much as we are physically damaged by consuming large amounts energy-dense foods such as refined sugar, or refined plant alkaloids like cocaine, I maintain that we are completely unable — culturally and psychologically — to moderate our intake of this vast power source. There is no evolutionary precedent for an organism’s ability to make use of such concentrated stores of energy. My storyline of addiction can easily be seen in the ways that we are acting now, not as we would like to think we could act.

            • By GreenEngineer on November 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm

              What we have done is certainly true to our natures as living beings. The crows and the raccoons (to name a couple of species that come immediately to mind) would do the same thing, if they could. (Raccoons would be all over this, and maybe someday their descendants will be. But they aren’t likely to handle it any better than humans do.)

              Do you believe that things done by humans are in some way less “natural” than things done by other animals? I assert that is a dangerous conceit, and it contributes to the primary error of believing ourselves in any way apart from nature. We are part of nature, and nature is part of us. Species driving themselves to extinction is nothing new (although usually it happens due to exhaustion of the biological energy source – i.e. the food supply) and is also part of nature. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing.

            • By Adrienne Adams on November 26, 2013 at 1:25 pm

              We have made ourselves apart from nature. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s the reality. We just aren’t bound by the same constraints as are the all other species on this planet.

              One only has to look at humanity’s relationship with our previous favored source of energy — wood — to see how we react to a surfeit of energy. Humans have been very good at utilizing wood as an energy source since the invention of fire, but it was the development of surplus caloric energy via grain-based agriculture that enabled us to really ramp up our exploitation of the planet’s natural systems. We began the extermination of forests in the cradles of civilization in the Middle East and China, spread to the Mediterranean, thence to Northern Europe and the British Islands, and finally over the sea to North & South America. Not once, at any point in this 13,000 year journey, did we voluntarily slow our destruction of forests. External circumstances, such as the collapse of empires and plague, allowed a time of regrowth; but once we regained the ability to massively cut forests, we did so, and continued to do so until the lands were finally exhausted and unable to ever grow forests again.

            • By Adrienne Adams on November 26, 2013 at 1:27 pm

              And we may, indeed, drive ourselves to extinction… but it’s all the others we’ll drag along with us that concerns me. No other animal has had that power to wipe out so many other species.

            • By Adrienne Adams on November 26, 2013 at 1:49 pm

              But you are absolutely right that we are, in a crucial sense, no different from the crows and raccoons. The old lizard-brain is working just as well in us as in them, which is what makes it all so scary. We have the technology, but not the wisdom, to stop the destruction of the world as we know it.

            • By Russ Finley on November 26, 2013 at 11:25 pm

              Not sure we have the technology or the wisdom …

            • By Russ Finley on November 26, 2013 at 10:54 pm

              Well said.

            • By Russ Finley on November 26, 2013 at 11:22 pm

              I’ll stick with my addiction analogy


              That isn’t your analogy. It has been bouncing around for decades now. Some analogies are better than others, and this one has never made sense to me.

  5. By alpha2actual on September 24, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    Cape Wind project in Nantucket Sound has been approved. The project will cost $2.6 BILLON, and it has secured funding for $2 BILLON of that from a Japanese bank. But this is believed to be subject to the project gaining a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy. The contracted cost of the wind farm’s energy will be 23 cents a kilowatt hour (excluding tax credits, which are unlikely to last the length of the project), which is more than 50% higher than current average electricity prices in Massachusetts. The Bay State is already the 4th most expensive state for electricity in the nation. Even if the tax credits are preserved, $940 million of the $1.6 billion contract represents costs above projections for the likely market price of conventional power. Moreover, these costs are just the initial costs they are scheduled to rise by 3.5 percent annually for 15 years.

    This project is rated at 468 MW and will produce 143 MW after applying a Capacity Factor of 30.4 % the time the wind actually blows. Life cycle is 20 years therefore this project will produce 24.6 Gigawatts. Cost per Megawatt $162.72.

    A Combined Cycle Natural Gas Turbine plant studied by the DOE completed in 2010 is rated at 570 MW and produces 470 MW, capacity factor 85%. Cost $311 MILLION. Life cycle 35 years therefore this plant will produce 133 Gigawatts. Cost per Megawatt $3.48. I have yet to find a commercial renewable energy process that is economically viable. The math Cost / (Baseplate MW X Capacity Factor X 8760 (annual hours) X Life Cycle (years))

  6. By alpha2actual on September 24, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    The US Energy Information Agency is the go to government source for unbiased data. Here is a listing of Federal subsidies for electric power by source, fiscal 2010, dollars per Megawatt. Oil and Gas $0.64, Hydropower $0.82, Coal $0.64, Nuclear $3.14, SOLAR $775.64, WIND $56.29. You don’t need a Harvard MBA that there is something amiss here.

    Without subsidies and mandates this nonsense wouldn’t be happening in the US. And yes it takes both sides of the isle, the Crony Capitalists, Crony Socialists and the latest addition to the mix Green Robber Barons. By the way, check out how the renewable energy policies have worked out in Europe in regards to the recession. Spain solar has crashed, Cap and Trade market is in the tank, Germany’s offshore wind debacle, UK canceling all of it onshore wind projects, etc.

  7. By Moiety on September 25, 2013 at 6:30 am

    For me the biggest misconception is energy and electricity. In the European press and discussions on various websites, I often see claims for 100% renewable energy (usually around wind or solar) etc with statistics only showing electricity production.
    The mistake is so invasive that laypeople get confused on the issue as well and think that the problem is far easier to fix. In the UK electricity is about 10% of the total energy use and renewables makeup about 10% of this. However people often say in discussions with me that we are getting 10% of our energy from renewables whereas the figure is actually 1%. In a similar train I have had people using Germany as a good example as it gets approximately 12% of its energy from renewables and that we should be building more wind and solar farms. Again that energy is made up of different sources and biomass is the main contributer to this with wind and solar only making up around 2% of the total energy need.

  8. By alpha2actual on September 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    “The high capital cost and zero fuel cost of renewable projects forces the risk of ownership onto investors, while the near-zero capital cost and high fuel cost of older fossil fuel plants pushes risk onto consumers.”

    This quote pretty much encapsulates the mindset of the renewable energy advocates. It is, however, incredibly disingenuous. The bit about forcing risk of ownership of renewable projects onto investors does not reflect that the “consumers” with their State and Federal tax dollars via subsidies are in fact transferring, unknowingly, that risk onto themselves. As a result these bogus renewable commercial projects are being funded by rate payers for the privilege of having their electric utility bills double over the lifetime of the project. This has to be the most creative Ponzi scheme yet invented. If you are interested in this comment I really suggest you Google a New York Times article from November, 2011 entitled “A Gold Rush of Subsidies in Clean Energy Search” that describes in great detail the “financials” of a large commercial solar project in California. This is a 1.6 billion dollar project totally funded by State, Federal taxes and Grants that guarantee a 384 million dollar profit to investors before construction begins.

    The money quote,

    P.G.& E., and ultimately its electric customers, will pay NRG $150 to $180 a megawatt-hour… that was about 50 percent more than the expected market cost of electricity in California from a newly built gas-powered plant. While neither state regulators nor the companies will divulge all the details, the extra cost to ratepayers amounts to a $462 million subsidy, according to Booz, which calculated the present value of the higher rates over the life of the contracts.

  9. By ben on September 25, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    How dare you disturb the sunshine and roses reception from the mainstream press on the NRC initiative in the California desert. You are such a party-pooper to throw cold water on this upbeat report on how we are advancing the clean-tech agenda in meaningful ways via expert public-private partnerships like this one;) The fact that you would raise practical concerns about something a trivial as costs and bottom-line economics is really quite, ah, impolitic, of you. I do wish you’d consult with the vanguard of relevant thought-shapers on these sorts of trend-setting initiatives ahead of posting your opinions in an open forum such as ETI.
    Should you persist in highlighting these inconvenient facts, well, I suspect Editor Avro in consultation with RR may need to consider a new filtering protocol for the blog even as a referral to DOE (or is that Homeland Security?) is made to foster your cooperation with the message that we are fully expecting out of the citizenry these days.
    Thanks in advance for your understanding and attitudinal adjustment.

    • By alpha2actual on September 25, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      I appreciate a droll sense of humor. is a website that has 39 of the major climate datasets, many with the original raw data then in “adjusted” format including the NSIDC Arctic and Antarctic Sea Ice Indexes. The site’s founder is a Brit with 30 years of software development experience and has provided an Interactive Feature that allows for the plotting the data and creating plots containing several datasets. If you plot the Sea Ice datasets using From 1985, To 2012, Mean 100 (a smoothing factor) and Normalize you will observe a steady decline in the Arctic Ice and a steady increase in Antarctic Ice. Since 90% of Earth’s ice is sequestered in the Antarctic I find this plot significant. If your are mischievous and I know you are you can add a third plot, the ESR1 CO2 using the same parameters except use Mean=5, the resulting plot is hilarious.

  10. By Forrest on September 26, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Some important trade offs to consider with bio-fuel. First the money saved at the pump. A new analysis by renowned energy economist Philip K. Verleger, former energy adviser to Presidents Ford and Carter. shows that, thanks to ethanol, we’re paying $0.50-1.50 per gallon less for gasoline. We save $.50/gallon directly by utilizing cheaper gasoline base stock and again by utilizing the cheap octane booster called ethanol. Next, per this economist analysis, the swings of crude oil cost dampened per ethanol production. As the international community pumps up local production of bio-fuel they lessen their vulnerability to terrorist and tyrant antics, this in turn decreases cost/need of U.S. military. Bio-fuel is produced locally, improves local economy and utilized locally. Transportation cost reduced as well as reliance upon huge international corporations. Poor nations and rural areas have a revenue source, a good thing. Ethanol production is on a trend line to improve efficiency. The fuel has not undergone generations of improvements such as petrol over the decades enjoyed. Energy in energy out calculations improving and comparable. Some studies have crude oil not that attractive. Some ethanol processors have co-gen with power plants to utilize waste heat. This should be promoted by a change up within our current liability and regulation environment. Poet plants utilizing the cellulose lignite by product will drastically reduce natural gas consumption and generate some electricity per steam production. The combustion waste by products of ethanol much simpler to control. Heavy metals and carcinogens not present. Waste to ethanol processes seem to be a win win. Good to reduce waste and get a valuable commodity much needed.

    Natural gas is often a renewable fuel. The biological process does not take that long i.e. biogas from garbage dumps and anaerobic digestors. Also, some game changing technology upon our coal stacks. They currently use activated carbon dust to capture mercury and other heavy metals at the 40% rate. New technology utilized the activated carbon and in addition limestone dust. The dust is pulled out by precipitation electrostatic separators. They achieve 90% reduction in heavy metals and 40% decrease in CO2. The acid rain problem nonexistent as particulate matter eliminated and acid neutralized. So, by 2016 some old plants that can’t be retrofitted will be scrapped, otherwise new coal plants appear to me to be “green”. Mercury waste from coal combustion 90 tons/year, but potentially reduced to 9t per modern pollution control technology. Compare this to dentist utilizing 30 tons/year and the material is within your mouth. Also, how many tons vaporized within atmosphere per cremation? Consider the $$ the U.S spends to eliminate every trace of pollution per the latest EPA regs so expensive costing consumers $.04/kwh and all for nothing if China builds one more crude coal plant. As per Roberts analysis….China and India prime polluters per coal. What we accomplish in U.S. not that important globally.

    • By Forrest on September 26, 2013 at 8:58 am

      Oh, btw some will blast even these new low pollution coal plant per their analysis that mercury is still polluting the earth just not within the smokestack emissions. This is silly talk as mercury is an element that was with us upon creation and will always be with us. It was dug up in coal mine and soon to be concentrated (a good thing) and placed back into earth per controlled engineered sequestration/deposits aka dumps. The activist will clamor “a threat to ground water”. Well, it was probably a bigger threat before, lying misplaced upon nature. Sixty minutes did a hack job report on fly ash problem from a particular coal plant that had a fly ash runoff. This plant needed to do a better job of storage, containment, and deposit. Just 60 Minutes tried to do a wholesale judgement upon the industry. The pollution control industry claims they can utilize the coal waste for certain higher value products. Fly ash itself should be utilized? Probably the regulation industry is attempting to axe any attempt to lessen problems per naturalist biases.

  11. By Adrienne Adams on October 4, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    The major issue I have with the discussion of renewables is the fact that it is nearly universally presented as a dichotomous argument: Renewables vs. Fossil Fuels, or Renewable A vs. Renewable B, or Renewables vs. Nuclear, all within the framework of the status quo, i.e. unlimited growth of an industrialized civilization. I don’t think we have the luxury of assuming that we will be able to maintain this civilization at the level that we now enjoy, let alone bring up the standard in the developing world. If you merely look at one of our “peaks” — Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Soil, or Peak Money, it looks like we could techno-fix one, maybe two of those problems. But put all four Peaks into the stewpot and add a gallon of Climate Crisis, and we’ve got a corrosive brew that is certain to demolish the world as we know it.

    For decades we have atomized the issues, discussing pros and cons of one technology or another. But that’s no longer a viable approach, and our technological challenges can’t be divorced from their global interactions with the environment, economics, politics, and social justice.

    So I think we have to really get past the reductive arguments of how renewable is Renewable A or Renewable B. A Sunweber says, “An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable.” Nothing we humans make is renewable except for babies. A more complex and nuanced analysis is needed, and one that admits that we can’t possibly keep following the same trajectory we have been for the past 200 years.

    How do we reboot our fossil-fueled industrial infrastructure with $100+/bbl oil, lower and lower EREOI fuels, plummeting net primary productivity of the worlds’ ecosystems, and a global economy on credit-bubble life support? It’s the Red Queen syndrome writ large: because even if we can pull off a decade or three of energy shift from fossils to renewables, we are still faced with the long term question of how to support 9 or 10+ billion humans on a planet that, absent industrialization, can probably only support 5% or fewer of that number.

    A valuable thought experiment for all energy engineers: imagine one year providing for yourself and you family solely upon your own biological energy. Maybe you get to start with a small bag of seeds, but basically you have to figure out how to keep from freezing and starving, solely with the sweat of your brow. OK, maybe that’s too extreme — few of have any idea what would be involved in doing that. So just do one thing, say, cut a winter’s worth of firewood (I’ll go easy on you, only four cords) with only hand tools. Or build a 300 s.f. cabin using only hand tools (no dimensional lumber supplied). Or grow a garden large enough to feed yourself and your family for one year, using only hand tools. With steel tools, you’re still squarely in the Industrial Age. Imagine doing any of that with wooden or bronze tools. For most civilized Westerners, even using modern tools, these tasks would be backbreaking. You’d eat twice as much as you usually do and still lose weight. Energy is expensive. We are spoiled beyond belief with the power fossil fuels have given us. Things are not looking good for us to get by without them.

  12. By kublikhan on December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Robert, it is clearer than the
    original WSJ piece. But I still think something is missing here. You are
    arguing that if renewable energy has a non-renewable input, it shouldn’t really
    be called renewable. But it seems to me that argument is only true if the nonrenewable
    input is consumed during the life of the energy generator. Such as biofuels consuming
    fossil fuel inputs. However this argument should not apply to an energy source
    that only needs the non-renewable input for initial construction and it can be
    recovered during plant deconstruction/recycled at the end of its life. For
    example, a wind turbine that requires rare earth magnets. The turbine does not
    consume these rare earths during its operation and they can be recovered and
    used as inputs in the next generation of wind turbine, indefinitely. This would
    seem to satisfy long-term sustainability. Of course scaling and economical questions
    still remain. If the technology cannot scale to provide an appreciable amount
    of energy economically, then it might be wiser to invest in a technology with
    better economics.

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