Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Are Alternative Energy Sources Realistic?

Jeff Vail talks about Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) in a detailed post

The basic idea is to account for the energy used to produce wind turbines, for instance, and determine if the energy they generate is more than the energy required to implement them (build, transport to location, and install). Obviously if it's equal or less than you shouldn't even be doing it. In fact, if it's not significantly more (by say a factor of 10) then maybe you'd be better off not doing it.

Vail points out that this calculation is very dependent on how wide you define the scope of implementing the technology. For instance, do you also need to add in the fuel needed to raise the rice to feed the worker that built the turbine blade? How about the infrastructure to educate and pay the engineer that designed it? He concludes that it is impossible to accurately account for this, and suggests a different approach, based on price of the technology in the market. He intends to evaluate Wind and Solar power using this methodology in upcoming posts.

The point to take home here is that if the energy alternatives we're considering do not have much of an EROEI ratio then we should not be wasting our time on them. If there is no alternative with a good EROEI then we should start figuring out how to get by on less energy. I think there are reasons why we should greatly lower our energy use even if a good alternative energy source exists; this is a topic for a different post.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Self Deception

If what we are doing is so good, how come we have to pretend it's something else?

This question could be asked about so many things: from stressless bank "stress tests", to collaboration with the health care industry for universal health coverage rather than a single payer (government) system, to spending 50 billion helping GM through bankruptcy and not wanting to talk about whether tax payers will ever get this money back.

Is it because you just can't say out loud that the decision was made for expediency in order to balance the interests of strong lobbying groups? (You could maybe apply this to several of the above).

Is it because the best long term strategy requires the taxpayers to take a hit, but we don't dare tell them?

Bill Moyers discussed the benefits of a single-payer health care system on a recent show and concluded that this was the only way to achieve large gains in efficiency and savings. But when people asked politicians why this was not on the table, they were told, "because it will never happen", and that we would be foolish to squander the opportunity for extended health coverage on a pipe dream like this.

Unfortunately there is such a thing as the "possible" and the "politically possible".

However, it would do us a lot of good to at least say what we're really doing, instead of lying to the group and to ourselves about it.

How about this: "We're giving 50 billion to GM because we need to have some manufacturing base in this country, and they are one of our few examples. You will never see this money again. In fact, they will probably start losing money again once they come out of bankruptcy, and at that time we will have to either let them go under for real, or give them more money."

I'm not particularly irate about the GM example, it just serves as a good demonstration of what I'm talking about. I'm much more concerned about the health care solution.