Introduction to Renewable Energy – A Reality Check

Systems thinking is “a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems”– definition).

In the last post I talked about Nuclear Power and that once one factors in the full process for using that source it turns out to be a highly polluting and dangerous source for many reasons – mining pollution, fuel processing pollution, toxic products, waste hazards, potential for catastrophic outcomes, already refined nuclear fuel source potential, and excessive cost to build and maintain.  As an option to Fossil Fuels (FFs), its only benefit is that the generation of electricity is relatively clean of carbon emission and immediate pollution, although the whole process in itself is as bad if not worse, depending on how you measure hazard.  FFs have severe pollution problems from beginning to end, although they are a transportable dense source of energy.  Oil and Gas however have explosive flammability problems during transportation and storage.

Renewable energy is touted as carbon and pollution free, and indeed it is if you only take the generation of electricity into account.  Once you look at the whole process it is still problematic, but the question is to what extent compared to traditional FF and nuclear power.  It is with this understanding that we can look at the options with a clearer perspective.

One of the limiting factors for technology throughout human history is the problem of having enough energy (power) to do anything.  Mainly muscle power with some wind (think sailing ships and Dutch windmills) and some water (water wheels) as the primary option for power – interestingly, all were completely renewable sources, simple as they were once the technology was built.  The main resources were wood frames with some iron strengthening supports and canvas (Hemp) cloth.   The discovery and use of FFs is what allowed the growth of the industrial and then the technological revolutions.

The problem with FFs of course is the extensive mining and extraction, and the even more harmful pollution resulting from using them.  Another problem with FFs is that they are not evenly distributed over the Earth’s surface.  I have always been somewhat amused by bumper stickers that say “Why is our oil under their sand.”  Another unspoken and crucial problem with FFs is the economic stranglehold and control that the businesses that mine and extract the traditional energy have on the world’s economy and how these companies dictate the world’s geo-political policies.    By far the biggest advantage of renewable energy resources is that they are local and non-transferable – you can transport the energy generated but the resources are not something you have to fight to control.

I never tire of hearing antagonists to renewable energy try to impress me with their insights, like how solar panels don’t work at night and wind turbines don’t work when the wind isn’t blowing, yet remain oblivious to the almost insane logistics of providing energy from FFs and dealing with the pollution of the whole system.  From a system’s thinking perspective, renewable energy is a far better source for generating electricity, not perfect, but the many options have multiple advantages over FFs.  I will cover each renewable option in more detail in upcoming blog posts, but for now a simple overview.  The technology we now have has allowed us to tap into the natural resources in ways not possible before the industrial revolution.

We can now manufacture machines that use natural resources such as wind, sunlight, temperature differentials in the ground and in the ocean, ocean tides, etc.  The big kicker here is that the renewable energy capture system must use the FF energy system to get it running at full steam, so to speak.  If we keep waiting and using FFs until they run out, then not only do we have exponentially more pollution to deal with, but the problem of having enough energy to manufacture the required amount of renewable systems will be gone.   After that it would be a remarkably slow process to manufacture enough energy to meet needs even knowing the technology we need to build.

The other big change we will need to think about is how best to tap into renewable sources based on the locality of where it is being generated.  Solar panels in Barrow, Alaska, night be feasible for 3-4 months of the year during the continuous summer sun months, but not much of an option beyond that.  We need to think about multiple sources being used in any locality based on the best management practices of what is available.  And don’t forget, those resources are local – they cannot be disrupted by any body, and the jobs to build and maintain the technology using these resources are always local and cannot be outsourced.  Manufacturing these renewable energy capture systems is the only drawback – they will still require a large amount of mining to get the needed minerals and the manufacturing will still require smelting of the minerals from the ore and energy to build the systems. But once the systems are in place and adequate for the populations needs, then there is no further pollution and no disposal pollution problems.   The truly clean energy can then be used in further manufacturing, with recycling of components being a simple further conservation measure to reduce mining.

More about the specifics of each of the renewables in upcoming posts.

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