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Gail Tverberg is a writer and speaker about energy issues. She is especially known for her work with financial issues associated with peak oil. Prior…

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Why Clean Energy Can’t Exist on its Own

To listen to President Obama, you would think that clean energy is our next salvation. But clean energy can’t exist on its own. Clean energy options should more properly be called “fossil fuel extenders”. They only work within a system that has fossil fuels.

We can’t make solar PV panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels, and we can’t move them to their new sites and install them without fossil fuels. Many solar panels are made in China, and wind turbines often include overseas components (or are made overseas). If grid tied solar PV is installed without back-up batteries, it won’t work when the grid isn’t working.

Even corn ethanol is a fossil fuel extender. Corn is planted, harvested and transported using vehicles that use oil, and of course the finished product is mixed with petroleum products. Fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides also use petrochemicals, and ethanol plants are usually powered with natural gas or coal.

Wind turbines are only about 2% of US electrical production, and solar PV is well under 1%. Why aren’t school children and adults told about where our electricity comes from? The biggest source is coal, followed by natural gas. Nuclear is a very close third after natural gas.

Energy Generation
Figure 1. US electric generation since 1970 in Btus, based on EIA data

Our electrical system needs oil, too. Most of the workers get to work in cars; maintenance of transmission lines needs to be done using vehicles; replacement parts need be transported using vehicles powered by oil; oil is needed for lubrication.

Even if we had an abundant supply of electricity from wind and solar, that electricity wouldn’t run today’s cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats. They run on petroleum products, except for a very few electrical powered vehicles. The electrical vehicles we are looking to use to replace current vehicles use lithium, which is an imported product (requiring oil for transport). Sources are limited, and leave us open to some of the same issues of supply interruption as oil.

More important than taking about clean energy is talking about using less fossil fuel energy, especially petroleum products, through buying smaller vehicles, carpooling and using public transportation. Saving electricity or natural gas through insulation and sealing cracks is helpful too, but doesn’t help our liquid fuel problem.

Taxing oil companies is a popular subject, but it is worthwhile thinking this through. Will doing this reduce the amount of oil that they pump, because fields that were at one time economic, are no longer economic? An example that is often given is all of the stripper wells that we have in the United States. They are typically owned by very small companies or individuals, rather than big oil companies. Together, they pump something like 900,000 barrels of oil a day out of the 5.5 million barrels a day of oil we are now pumping. These wells would likely not be profitable with higher taxes. They would just be closed. There are no doubt fields that big companies have in production that are marginal as well. Higher taxes might very well push the oil companies to close them.

Why not just import more? One issue is whether we really can. Imports have been declining since 2005, because world oil supply has remained flat, and because of more competition from China, India, and the oil exporting countries. It is nice to think that OPEC will supply more oil if we need it, but there is little evidence they can really raise their production by several million barrels of oil a day. Despite their promises, they haven’t done so to date, now or back in 2008, when prices were very high.

Whether we like it our not, we need petroleum products. If we don’t have them, we need to plan for a very different world. Rather than talking about clean energy, perhaps it would be worthwhile talking about what the world would look like with much less, or no, petroleum products. We have had an abundance of fossil fuel products in the last 200 years, but this will not continue forever.

Another thing we need to do is think through is what our economic system would look like with less oil. The oil intensity of the US economy has been declining by a shade over 2% per year. Even if this rate of improvement continues, we cannot expect the US economy to keep growing, if oil consumption (including imports) declines by a greater percentage, roughly 2% a year. Declines of greater than 2% a year in oil consumption seem quite possible–we experienced them in the recent recession. We need to think through what we need to do to change our economy, so that it can handle year to year declines in both oil consumption and economic growth.


President Obama, why don’t you start talking straight to the American people? Start telling the story as it is. Quit sugar coating the “clean energy” story. There is a very significant chance our oil imports will continue to decline from their 2005 peak in the near future, and we really haven’t prepared for this eventuality. There aren’t easy answers, but telling the truth would be a start in the right direction.

By. Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg is a writer and speaker about energy issues. She is especially known for her work with financial issues associated with peak oil. Prior to getting involved with energy issues, Ms. Tverberg worked as an actuarial consultant. This work involved performing insurance-related analyses and forecasts. Her personal blog is ourfiniteworld.com. She is also an editor of The Oil Drum.

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  • Anonymous on January 30 2011 said:
    Silly kids, OIL has been subsidized for over 30 years, we also subsidize COAL , Natural Gas and Nuclear. Solar still competes with all of them and provides clean , renewable energy for years. How can you run a cola plant without refuling for more than a day or two, how can you run a Nuclear plant with out refueling every 18 months. We have 104 Nuclear plants in the US and import 95% of the uranium to run them. Try to run COAL, NG or Nuclear without water. Try no to dumpo power from COAL or Nuclear at Off Peaks when they can't be rampped down or up in time for the next day. Get the facts, all the facts.
  • Anonymous on January 31 2011 said:
    Excellent article - maybe even better.Now where this subsidy thing is concerned, I'm all in favor. Although the voters don't know it, they elect governments that will provide the right kind of subsidies.For instance, the Swedish government constructed 12 nuclear plants in 13-14 years, and they gave this country perhaps the lowest cost electricity in the world. Although taxpayers AS A GROUP financed those reactors, in the long run they didnt pay a dollar, and instead, they received an enormous benefit - a benefit that was thrown away by dumb politicians, to include a dumb electric deregulation.I wonder when certain people are going to learn enough economics and mathematics to understand that 2 + 2 = 4.
  • Anonymous on February 01 2011 said:
    Clean, oil, green, clean, oil, green, blah, blah, blah.None of it matters. Over-unity power is right around the corner. Hundreds (yes, hundreds) of tinkerers are producing free energy in their garages and sheds across the world. Ignore or pooh-pooh it at your own risk but it's inevitable. Goodbye Big Oil!
  • Anonymous on February 01 2011 said:
    Excellent points. Particularly about transportation fuels. And given the size of the country, a lot of transportation fuel is needed. Changing transportation from running on oil to running at least partially on natural gas will be sufficiently disruptive and costly. It is hard to imagine the disruption and cost needed to go to something else. And what that something else might be.
  • Anonymous on March 24 2011 said:
    Totally valid article, agree with 95% of it. I don't understand her final paragraph at all. How can you criticize Obama when he is following the most oil-tied regime to ever occupy the White House. The Bush administration WAS an oil administration. The personal wealth of 80% of the people in the upper echelons of that regime are derived from oil money. No president has ever or probably will ever get the chance to tie the American people into oil more tightly than Bush did.
  • Anonymous on March 24 2011 said:
    She says in the article that renewable energy grids require petrol to build that infrastructure... how is that an argument against a renewable energy system? What that MEANS is we have a small window right now while there's some petrol left where we can actually BUILD that renewable energy grid. You're right we need to get off oil... but we won't. Not until it runs out. We won't do it. That means take the oil while we have some and make something for the frigucking future. This article is damaging to what we need.

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