Thursday, January 27, 2011

Energy in the Real World

Energy in the Real World
Solar and Wind are not renewable. The energy from solar and from wind is of course renewable but the devices used to capture the energy of the sun and wind is not renewable. Nor are they green or sustainable.

An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. They reproduce themselves. The human-made equipment used to capture solar energy or wind energy is not renewable. There is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment. The many components used in devices to capture solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and biomass energy – aluminum, glass, copper, rare metals, petroleum in many forms to name a few – are fossil fuel dependent

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 Fahrenheit where they were baked.

The history channel on “Modern Marvels” had an excellent show on mining and producing copper. Huge machines the size of a two-story house running on fossil fuels gouge out the earth. The rock being only a very small percent copper must be processed using chemicals and more fossil fuels. Then depending on whether it is the plate for the absorber in the panel or wire for the blower further fossil fuels are needed to create the final product. These products must be transported various places for further manufacturing, again using additional fuels.

There are 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. There is pollution of the air and water that arises from the chemicals used in the manufacturing of the glass, copper, aluminum and other sundry materials in these panels. It does not include the debris from the mining of low percentage ore. From glass can come various noxious chemicals plus particulates in the air of arsenic and lead. Copper and aluminum manufacture (or recycling) also creates water and air pollution problems. To call these “renewable” energy capturing devices and processes green is not correct.

It is also blind to call these devices sustainable. As indicated above, it takes massive amounts of fossil fuels in the mining, extraction, purifying, basic manufacture, final product manufacture and transportation to get the materials to assemble this equipment. Often the electricity used to manufacture these products is powered by coal brought in by 100-car coal train run by a diesel/electric engine. There is simply no way that the energy captured by these devices can be use to reproduce the devices in a sustainable manner.

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.

There are tremendous stresses politically, environmentally, geographically and geologically for fossil fuels. Our money, energy and mineral resources must be used judiciously to repair and upgrade the infrastructure of water, sanitation, and buildings. 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 sparingly and wisely.

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.

Also found:


Copper Ore being loaded into a 300 ton truck for transport to the crusher.

The El Chino mine located near Silver City, New Mexico is an open-pit copper mine.
Alberta oil sands


Bauxite mining in Suriname

An aerial view-bauxite mine and alumina processing in Australia


The Bagger 288 is a bucket-wheel excavator used in strip mining.

Mountaintop removal operation, Boone County, West Virginia


NIGERIA OIL SPILLS This type of oil spill is widespread in the Niger Delta.

Amukpe is near a major city of Sapele and therefore attracted attention of the public. In rural areas, such spills would go on for months before any action is taken.

Photo via DOE


  1. the costs, literal and environmental, should be negated if we use salvaged parts for solar heat collectors, no?

    When I build things out of other people's trash, it in fact, adds a positive to the environmental equation - not using up any new resource, but saving one from being tossed.

    1. Some materials can be recycled, as you point out. Hydrocarbons cannot. But recycling, where possible, cmes at an appreciable cost of energy and materials. Recycling can be a worthwhile means of prolonging the use of some materials but it does not change the situation that these materials will run out.

  2. Tys - relatively true. Not making waste in the first place in the first step. There is actually waste on the commodities market. Given that, I agree, being a pack rat myself, I tried to reuse all I can.

  3. If my definition of ERoEI* is applied to so-called renewable energy installations based upon today's technology, not many of them will provide positive net energy, that is, have an ERoEI* greater than 1.0; but, with better technology and an ERoEI* ratio in excess of 1.0, these objections to the sustainability of renewable energy will no longer be valid. That is why it is important to use a definition of ERoEI, like ERoEI*, that determines feasibility. See for a very short discussion of ERoEI*.

  4. If you consider about saving the Earth, wouldn't wind & solar energy still be necessary to provide relatively clean energy? I totally agree with your article that collecting these sources of energy would use nonrenewable resources but so does oil, coal, natural gas & uranium. So unless you can provide a totally clean source of energy, its dangerous to stop using wind & solar energy.

  5. Flyheightblack - I have another view:
    We will go kicking and screaming down the path to the new Middle Ages as fossil fuels desert us. With the decline of available energy, those of most of us who have sat at the top of the energy pyramid will become the new peasants. With the popular view of the Middle Ages as a brutal and dirty time filled with famine and disease and at the mercy of armed overlords. We cringe at the thought.

    With great sadness, we must recognize the direct connection between present day population levels and the use of fossil fuels in food production, medical procedures, medicines and hygiene. With the fall in fossil fuel availability there will be a reduction in population. Population soared with the industrial revolution and the development of industrial, fossil fuel based agriculture. It cannot be sustained.
    From: The New Middle Ages

  6. What a good article! I agree, the cost of energy has been externalized to the point that it is difficult to really see and understand the TRUE cost we all pay. We have been conditioned by the marketing of products that we need "more" and little thought is given to shrinking supplies of the raw materials it takes to make "more".

  7. Most links for photos are broken. Could you please update?

  8. It's important to remember EROI when considering "renewable" energy sources, but I have to remark that in this warning, numbers could be a bit more persuasive than pictures of impressively large machines. Just how many PV panels' manufacture would that train of "almost-electricity" power? Just because we see a whole lotta coal here doesn't mean that it all goes toward just one tiny panel. Numbers matter!

    Also, I find it a bit disingenuous to presume that fossil fuels are *necessary* for wind turbine manufacture just because fossil-fuel-powered heat engines are the most cost-effective means of doing work (as in W = F.s) *now*. As for adhesives and the like, yeah, that's a bit more "necessary" but even there I expect we could substitute if we had to.

    Bunnyhuggers make one mistake: they assume that because the marginal cost of electricity from a so-called renewable source is free, that its use instead of more conventional sources is *automatically* of net benefit to the environment. I submit that you could be making the corollary mistake: concluding that renewable energy is an impossibility just because the current economy uses non-renewable energy to make panels and turbines.

    The real question to ask is whether an economy running solely on solar and wind power (with no need to continue sharply ramping up panel and turbine manufacture - no need to do is physically possible. Burning coal to make panels might simply be part of the answer to, "How do we get there from here?"

  9. My new *theory* tangentially related to the use of renewable, however one wishes to define it, is that any benefits from it are being/have been overwhelmed by our *enabling* of greater heat flow from the tropics, where it is in excess, across temperate regions, especially North America, toward the arctic. By replacing northern and temperate forests with agriculture, we have diminished the flow of heat upward via the convective mechanism. When heat can no longer travel upward--it must travel northward. The Great Lakes once served as a natural barrier to this flow. Now, with higher surface water temperatures, they are functioning more like a *heat-pipe* than a barrier.

    The long-term solution would be to return the land used for agriculture/grazing to its natural state, or, short-term, find another way to divert this enthalpy flow *upward* rather than to continue to allow it to flow northward, with the inevitable consequence of completely melting the arctic, including the Greenland ice cap.

    This may be one way of doing it:

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