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The Un-Renewable Nature of Renewable Energy

“Renewable energy” has two fundamental conceptual flaws. It’s not really renewable, and it’s not really energy.

What is “Renewable”?

“Renewable” in most definitions approximates to something like “naturally replenished” and it often contrasted with allegedly inferior, “finite” sources. It brings to mind the image of a pizza where a slice, once eaten, magically reappears. There is no such phenomenon in nature, though. Everything is finite. The sun and the photons and wind currents it generates are not infinite; they are just all part of a very large nuclear fusion reaction. True, that nuclear fusion reaction will last billions of years, but so will the staggering amounts of untapped energy stored in every atom of our “finite” planet.

To obsess about whether a given potential energy source will last hundreds of years or billions of years is to neglect the key issue that matters to human life here and now: whether it can actually provide the usable energy that will maximize the quantity and quality of human life.

Usable vs. Unusable Energy

The key question about energy is not whether it is “finite”–everything is–but whether it is usable. This is borne out by the history of energy production. For most of human history, our amount of usable energy was barely above the amount needed to power our muscles (and during famines, not even that). There was copious amounts of unusable energy–the chemical bonds in deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas, the mechanical energy of the wind, the photons of the sun, and, greatest of all, the energy stored in all the matter around us, whose proportions were quantified when Einstein identified that E=MC^2. Every advancement in energy production consisted of taking some unusable source of energy and rendering it usable–windmills for grinding grain, water-wheels for operating simple machines, and ultimately concentrated hydrocarbon fuels that multiplied human productivity hundreds of times over.

Hydrocarbons et al are often called “finite natural resources,” but this is a misnomer; they are not naturally a resource. They become resources–i.e., they deliver services–only insofar as they are rendered valuable by human intelligence. This is Julian Simon’s crucial identification that the human mind is “the ultimate resource” that creates new resources, including energy resources, by discovering how to extract new services out of previously useless raw materials. We should not think of unusable raw materials as resources until or unless they are rendered usable by human intelligence.

This last applies to the sun (and the wind), the ultimate source of “renewable” energy. The vast majority of sunlight does not provide usable energy given any known technology. True, through photovoltaic conversion, a solar panel in most places can generate an electrical current of some magnitude. But who cares? A hurricane produces many h-bombs worth of mechanical energy–does that make it an energy resource? Not if it can’t be harnessed in a manner that provides the cheap, reliable power that we can use to meet our present and future needs. In the vast majority of cases, solar conversion technology can’t, the energy collected is too dilute and intermittent to be a useful source of large-scale energy.

Real Energy vs. Hypothetical Energy

So “renewable energy” as it is commonly used to mean solar and wind, is not “energy” in the economic sense of the word. It is ahypothetical source of energy that we know of, but that hypothetical deserves no more privileged status than any other kind of hypothetical (the ability to unleash atomic energy from a wide range of elements) let alone methods with far more promising potential (e.g., the potential of uranium and thorium to generate tens of thousands of years worth of energy).

The idol of “renewable” energy is part of the broader idol of “sustainability.” Both of these are false idols that obscure the true beauty of capitalism, which is that in producing energy–and everything else–it is better than “sustainable”–it is progressive. “Renewable” or “sustainable” implies that the ideal life trajectory is one of repetition, using the same methods and materials over and over. But that is an ideal fit for an animal, not a human being. The human mode of existence is to always get better, always improve, always discover how to use new raw materials to create energy.

A False Ideal Born of Green Mysticism

The root of the fetish with “renewable” energy is the Green ideal of minimizing man’s impact on nature. This is borne out by the fact that the only practical “renewable” source of energy, hydroelectric, is widely opposed by the Green movement for interfering with “free-flowing rivers.” That movement prizes solar and wind despite their horrendous track record for ideological, ultimately religious reasons: the idea of a society only relying on the sun and the wind is congenial to their ideal of a world in which man tiptoes on the planet instead of transforming it.


If we cast aside the Green religion, “renewable energy” is false ideal that has no place in a rational discussion of energy. The only question that matters about energy is: what sources of energy will best advance human life now and in the relevant future (not 5 billion years)? And the only way to answer that question is to leave producers and consumers free to seek out ever-better answers in a free market. Then we will always have the best kind of energy–progressive energy.

By. Alex Epstein

This article was provided by MasterResource

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  • Matthew Aylott on May 01 2012 said:
    Alex your article is deeply flawed. You ignore the two basic and very pressing problems with oil.

    Firstly, we face dangerous and unprecidented levels of global climate change because of our appetite for fossil fuels like oil.

    And secondly, all evidence points to the fact that we have reached peak oil. The US for example contains around 2 per cent of the world’s oil reserves but currently uses more than 21 per cent of it.

    With current trends, US oil reserves are expected to be depleted in about 10 years. Don't believe me? Read BP's latest statistical review.

    The price of crude oil has risen 94% in the last five years, well above inflation and looks set to continue. Countries like the US will be those who suffer the most from these increases because of their reliance on oil.

    Clearly renewable sources of energy and fuels need to be cost competitive and they will be but we need to stimulate the market now to provide a stable platform for growth in the future. From technology R&D to commercialisation can take more than a decade.
  • Drew Benign on May 01 2012 said:
    What a waste of space. The author is clearly a shill for Big Oil and the other venal energy companies that want to burn the cheap stuff (coal, oil, natural gas) and in the process roast all our children. Why these violent people are allowed to run companies I don't understand. Their lack of consideration for the well-being of other humans is criminal.
  • Mel Tisdale on May 02 2012 said:
    How very worrying that such views could get past any half-decent editorial function and actually make it into print.

    The free market has got us into the God-forsaken mess we now face. The usual maximum CO2 atmospheric content is 280 ppm. We are now at 350 ppm and rising rapidly. The free-market economy has had its day and we now have to try and clean up the mess that it has caused. Making a start on the task would be a good idea, unless you call the miniscule action taken so far 'a start'!
  • Andrew Erler on May 02 2012 said:
    In response to Matthew -"renewable" energies (such as solar and wind) have had four decades or more of subsidies and research and are still horribly inefficient. How much 'more than a decade' do you mean? An open ended commitment to do it regardless of how long it takes and how much it costs?

    Further, according the the US Government we have been running out of oil since the 1880s when the Ohio and Pennsylvania oil fields began to go dry. Guess what? We find more. Alaska and Canada alone have immense oil fields - we just can't drill because of government regulation. Same with shale oil, tar sands, and other types. Hell, in the past decade fracking has opened up billions of barrels of natural gas for human use. Are you really stating that we have reached the pinnacle of oil extraction methods and are unable to find anything else?

    In response to Drew what is criminal are the people advocating expensive and unreliable sources of energy that would harm the poorest among us the most.

    On a side note. How do you feel about Nuclear? 3 mile Island was the greatest disaster in human history that did not result in the death of one human. It is historically the safest form of energy, and emits zero carbon emission. Are you in favor of that?
  • Michael F Dickey on May 02 2012 said:
    Great article Alex as usual. Why does everyone automatically assume your are a 'shill' for the oil companies. Perhaps he is merely a human being who wishes to live the most productive life possible.

    Matthew and others of the same opinion, if you are so worried about Climate Change, I'm sure you are all very vocal advocates of Nuclear energy then correct? The only nation on earth which has fewer CO2 emissions today than forty years ago is France, not because it embraced renewable energy but because it built the most advanced nuclear infrastructure in the world, ignoring the environmental hysteria that had hijacked the natural technological progression toward nuclear and away from coal that stunted the rest of the developed world. James Lovelock is now a leading proponent of Nuclear Power for the same reason. Here are France's CO2 emissions, data is from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center
  • Rockin the Bakken on May 02 2012 said:
    Lots of shills for the environmental lobby here. Alex SHOULD be getting paid by the oil companies. As far as I know, he isn't but I am sure he would let everyone know if he starts. I think he would probably be proud of it.

    As for "peak oil" : Give me a break. We are burning dead dinosaurs and the plants most of them ate. It is awfully convenient that they all died at the same time 50 million years ago because that means we know right where the oil is. The only thing limiting supply is the price and regulations; the latter being a big component of the price. When you crybaby environmentalists are filling your Priuses with $15 per gallon gas, you can thank your lucky stars for people like Alex helping make sure it's available.
  • Taylor on May 02 2012 said:
    Nice article, definitely a perspective on green energy I haven't heard before. Good job.
  • RMB on May 02 2012 said:
    I'm often reminded of the movements throughout history that damned humanity over some "greater good," all of which ended with disastrous results. Be it religion, monarchs, or socialism/communism, people who focus so much attention on how to correct the behaviors of others are clearly motivated by one thing—control.

    What is surprising is that now there are a number of individuals deliberately ignoring the facts, even so far as to claiming that events in history did not occur. Maybe instead of listening to a bunch of pseudo-science and emotional arguments geared to motivate people to ignore logic and reason, people should do their homework. Oil is in EVERYTHING we use today. Medical breakthroughs have made it possible for people to live longer than ever before, using petroleum-based products. Lights, cars, bras, computers, that iPad and iPhone you so love, vitamin capsules, ink, electrician’s tape, fertilizers, deodorant, antihistamines, shampoo, nylon (including rope, pantyhose, etc.), dentures, surf boards, footballs, helmets…on and on and on…

    Those of you out there who demonize oil ought to try an experiment. Live without a single bit of oil use, including products made from oil. Try it for a full year. Put your money where your mouth is. Then we'll talk.
  • Joss on May 03 2012 said:
    What a terrible article, I work in the oil industry and even I know it won't last forever. Matthew is right, renewable sources of fuel and energy have to be the way forward, even the big oil companies know that.

    There are plenty of good reasons to keep using oil for now - it's versatile, cost effective and remains widely accessible but for the love of all things holy, Alex and the others who have commented here stop burying you heads in the sand. Oil is running out. Oil is getting more expensive. Oil is causing dangerous climate change.

    Renewables on the other hand will not run out. Renewables are getting cheaper. Renewables are preventing dangerous climate change. But it doesn't happen overnight - solar panels for example are using our engineering skills to mimic what a plant has evolved over millions of years to do: process radiative energy from sunlight turning it into a form of energy we can use, electricity. Human innovation at its best I think we can all agree.
  • Tim on May 06 2012 said:
    I think you're kind of missing the point with the term "renewable". Wind/solar, these things are labelled "renewable" but not in the sense that they are infinite, rather that we may use them at the same rate the energy is made available.

    The problem with fossil fuels is we are burning them up an order of magnitude faster than they were created. You can think of them as a giant battery that took millions of years to charge, and we're running it down over a timespan of decades. Its a bit short-sighted and we're headed for a calamity since we have become so dependent on using this amount of energy.

    If fossil fuels were being created at the same rate as we are using them, they would be "renewable". They're sadly not. So for the terms of practical and useful discussion, fossil fuels are "non-renewable". Alternatives need to be found - preferably "sustainable" ones - ie, it would be better to find something that will last thousands, tens of thousands of years, rather than just another oil field that might get us through the next decade if we're lucky.

    Your whole article appears to be based on a misrepresentation of these terms.
  • Gene on July 23 2013 said:
    Blatant hippocracy.
    "...does that make it an energy resource? Not if it can’t be harnessed in a manner that provides the cheap, reliable power that we can use to meet our present and future needs. In the vast majority of cases, solar conversion technology can’t, the energy collected is too dilute and intermittent to be a useful source of large-scale energy."

    This is exactly the current situation with the vaunted Green River 'shale oil', which is NOT currently economically viable, has NO commercialized refineries, and in fact has spent decades of government and private research dollars to just now begin some pilot projects.
    Maybe Green River type 'shale oil' should be called what is is... $200-500/barrel oil. Hmmm... at those energy rates, solar would be much more than just 'grid parity'.

    Call a spade a spade.

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