Energy

The Faster Horses of Renewable Energy

TILL

Renewable energy sources — solar, wind, and geothermal — offer the promise of meeting our current and growing energy demand without the costly carbon price tag of fossil fuel.

That’s a big claim.

Henry Ford allegedly said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Are renewable energies the “faster horses” of a 19th-century fallacy of infinite supply meets infinite demand?

“Are renewable energies the ‘faster horses’ of a 19th-century fallacy of infinite supply meets infinite demand?”

A back-of-the-envelope summary of renewable energy constraints and impacts (below) questions our assumptions of meeting the carbon challenge with supply side innovations of solar, wind, and geothermal (saddling a “faster horse”) when what is likely needed is automobile-like disruption of our energy demand. 

Progressive redevelopment of brownfield sites as low-cost platforms for experiments in re-localizing economies toward reducing transportation-related emissions, implementing low-carbon mass timber construction technologies, and deepening soils’ carbon storage capacity through plant-based land regeneration is Henry Ford-like disruption.

The horse lost.

TILL

Renewable Energy Constraints and Impacts

Geothermal

  • Geothermal has a limited life expectancy.
  • Heat sources eventually cool.
  • Geothermal extraction leaks greenhouse gases.
    • Hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane (30 times more potent a heat-trapping gas than CO2), and ammonia.
  • Geothermal extraction is expensive.

Solar

  • Solar panels require regular maintenance to operate efficiently (converting 14% to 20% of the sun’s light to electricity).
    • Dirty panels reduce energy output by 50%.   
      • Difficult-to-access rooftop solar arrays and distant highway embankment installations present real-world maintenance challenges that compromise optimum lab-based performance projections.
  • Solar panel materials and chemical manufacturing processes are toxic.
  • Solar panels have a finite lifespan. 
  • Ground-mounted solar panel systems have concrete footings.
    • Cement, the key ingredient in concrete, accounts for 8% of global carbon emissions.
  • Growing skepticism of solar energy’s cost-benefit beyond the sunbelt:
    • The carbon challenge is global. There is growing recognition that doubling down on investment in solar panels where energy output can be maximized (i.e., southwestern states [Arizona and New Mexico]) is more impactful than squandering limited financial resources on systems in regions with less overall and reliable sun coverage (i.e., northeastern states [New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut]), especially as life cycle analysis indicates the full environmental cost and real-world risks of sub-par performance.

Wind

  • Scaling up wind power poses system-level impacts not accounted for in current energy modeling.
  • Research speculates that maximizing wind power may increase earth’s temperature as turbines push rising warm air down to ground level. 
TILL