Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Stored Solar Energy vs “Real Time” Solar Energy

There is a serious misperception — promoted willingly and willfully by politicians, corporations, and the media — that renewables can substitute for fossil fuels, prop up industrial civilization, and allow us to maintain our profligate lifestyles. Visions of electric and biofuel-powered vehicles dance in people’s heads, leading them to believe in a future in which we’re still enjoying personal mobility, with the only difference being that all those millions of vehicles (and aircraft) are just powered by some other energy source.

Industrial civilization and motorized society came about because exploiting fossil fuels allows us to access millions of years worth of stored solar energy in a very short time. But renewables and biofuels allow us to access solar energy basically only in real time. Of course it’s possible for us to make biofuels and generate electricity, and then store them for use later, but that is a pitifully small amount of energy compared to what is stored in fossil fuels.

Therefore, once fossil fuels are no longer available, for one reason or another, we will be back to accessing solar energy in real time just as people did in the ages before industrial civilization arose. Renewable energy infrastructure can of course enable us to gather more solar energy than would otherwise be possible, and I am therefore totally in favor of using the current small window of opportunity to build as much renewable energy infrastructure as possible. Doing so would help us achieve a soft landing instead of heading into a crash. But we shouldn’t be led to believe that harvesting solar energy in real time can substitute for the massive amount of solar energy stored in fossil fuels, and we must also keep in mind that our renewable energy infrastructure will gradually degrade because fossil fuels are needed to maintain it.

Understanding this difference between harvesting solar energy in the stored form of fossil fuels and in real time is the key to understanding why industrial civilization has no future.

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