Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Supporting Fossil Fuels?

I have pestered this theme of solar, wind, “renewable”, “alternative” in various essays. The dramatic change from my original stance, hope, dream of a different future underlies the primary reason. I believe with this essay, I have finally captured my view of these concerns. The only piece I have not addressed in depth is the auxillary equipment – blowers, electronics, batteries, etc - needed for the use of these devices. I did hint at and to my satisfaction in http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/10/to-make-light-bulb.html.

This essay originally started as an email exchange between myself and a proponent of a locally manufactured solar hot air panel. This particular firm had received millions of dollars in public money to build a building and to install these panels on low income homes. I totally disagreed with the public money dispersals. As for the low income homes, I felt that good weatherization of these homes was an adequate step and only in the case of medical necessity should these panels be applied.

This exchange helped me to clarify my position on “renewable” and “alternative” energy sources. This position that had been stated in other essays:

http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/01/energy-in-real-world.html

http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/06/renewable-illusion.html


Here is my reply.

Solar hot air panels offer a perfect example of wrong thinking about energy and our energy future. Solar and wind devices are not renewable or alternative. They are extensions of the fossil fuels system. There is a vast infrastructure that allows the manufacture of these solar hot air panels as well as other solar and wind energy capturing devices.


For a solar hot air panel there is a copper plate that is an absorber, an aluminum frame, glass for glazing, insulation, gaskets as well as a blower to bring the heated air into the building. Each of these major components and all others are supported by fossil fuel energy and the massive equipment needed for mining, processing, manufacturing basic material, fabricating parts, assembling devices, installation and transportation during each of these steps.

To reiterate there is:

pit mining for raw materials,

drilling for oil and natural gas anywhere and everywhere,

mountain top removal for coal,

processing of raw ores like copper and aluminum,

manufacturing of processed ores into usable material,

fabrication of parts for solar and wind devices,

assembly of solar and wind devices,

installation of solar and wind devices,

periodic maintenance and parts replacement of solar and wind devices

all the transportation involved in each of these steps

Coincident with this use of fossil fuels are various modes of serious environmental degradation from earth moving, chemical use, spills, and air, soil and water pollution.

See my newest essay/pictorial: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/12/machines-making-machines-making.html


Calling solar hot air panels renewable, alternative, clean, green or sustainable is highly misleading and false advertising. It is clear that even with the spurious assessment of “renewable” to devices requiring massive inputs of fossil fuels that these solar hot air panels do not qualify since they require an additional input of electricity to make them function. It is quite simple – no juice, no heat. Even wind puts out something once installed without additional electrical inputs. Without electricity, these panels become expensive wall decorations but not a provider of energy.


These solar hot air panels are used for the six month during the cold months of the year. During that time sunshine during the day is available for only about half of those six months because of cloudiness. Also because of shorter days during the winter, usable sun is not completely available during the daylight hours. This makes these solar hot air panels working considerably less than half of the year. Once again they sit on the wall as a very expensive wall ornament.


These panels are also a waste of precious fossil fuel energy. Approximately one square foot of solar heating panel delivers 2/3 of a gallon of fuel oil equivalence across the heating season in Minnesota. Being generous and saying one square foot to one gallon of fuel oil equivalence (and not subtracting the energy from the electricity) this would amount to 60 gallons of fuel oil equivalent for the two years. This wouldn’t even pay for the transportation energy required to move material around to get the panels together and installed.


Given all the fossil requirements for extraction, processing, raw material manufacture, further manufacture for each of the components plus all the transportation requirements, subsidizing these panels is subsidizing fossil fuels. In addition, it is implicitly supporting fracking and tar sand pollution out of the need for the raw energy and material needs. There is simply no way that this device is green or clean or whatever feel good definition that has been fallaciously attached to it. It is business as usual.

See my newest essay/pictorial: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/12/machines-making-machines-making.html


All the rationalizations to maintain the goodness of this approach can not hide the massive fossil fuel use, the underlying support of fossil fuel use, and the environmental degradation to get basic materials and process them for these various “renewable” energy devices. We can lie to ourselves to justify our behavior, but not to physics, geology and ecology. The sooner we come to terms with the end of the fossil fuel era and adjust our living, the better it will be environmentally and climatically for the next generations.


This is a global problem. The use of these precious energy sources and material resources deprives half of humanity from access. This techno-fix remedy is typical neocolonial use of people and their resources for the good of a few. In the short and long run, fossil fuel and resource use will be about food (shifting away from fossil fuel based industrial agriculture) and about critical uses (clean water, water access, emergency vehicles) and not about these panels or the other solar and wind devices.

When I first saw the bigger system picture of energy extensions of fossil fuels, I thought that at least the various “renewable” energy devices could be transition technologies. This is not my belief now. The consumption of valuable energy and material resources are a major error. This is simply 20th century techno-fix for a 21st century world. Actually, it is a 1970s approach.


Along with the other essays mentioned, this one spells out the process of my coming to realize that solar, wind, and biomass were not what they were made out to be: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/12/thruanotherlens.html


If destroying the next generation’s physical future could have something even more important, it is the social illusion/delusion that this approach fosters. From politicians, to Joe and Jane middle class, to false hopes for the poor this approach allows people to believe we can maintain a semblance of the status quo where growth and the “American Dream” still thrive. These are the false assumptions, hustles and dreams of what we did economically this last decade. It brought the world economy to its knees. This is simply a more of the same.


I was challenged why I would choose this particular misuse of public funds over all the examples of boondoggles and hustles out there. I can see your point. It may be a boondoggle but it is your boondoggle. Get yours while the getting is good. There are state and federal bureaucrats that have a vested interest in maintaining the fiction about solar and wind devices because of their job.


All though I would disagree, if a private party wants to spend their money on any one of these devices that is their choice if the devices are available. I actually have been asked about these solar heating panels and have told the various people that it is a high quality piece of equipment. I said no more because I was asked no more.


Besides my believing that this is a poor use of precious resources, that it is a poor application once weatherization has occurred except in necessary medical situations, I believe we are teaching poor future skills to people. If a person or family lives in the north and they have done what is necessary to weatherize their home and possibly apply passive solar, then they need to put on an extra pair of socks, another sweater. See: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2010/10/summer-of-2010.html


The disparity between the haves and the growing number of have-nots is not addressed by putting up these feel good panels. It is a political situation that must be addressed at the grass roots level possibly by opting out of the system as peacefully as can be. This is what Kathy, my partner, and I are trying to develop at our orchard/garden for the next generations.


RREAL, the makers of these panels had to learn from me, the value and first step of weatherization in a somewhat contested encounter. They also were discounting of peak oil five years or so ago. I do not know if they have come to realize the importance of peak oil, peak water, the environmental degradation of heavy resource use and the devastation of fracking and tar sands. What if RREAL did come to this realization? Not a damn thing would change because it is the nature of the beast. Rationalization wins.

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