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A Question of Energy

This post arises from an insightful comment by Howell Clark on my previous article. His thoughts are so important I wanted to blog at the top level about them rather than bury my answer in a comment. Howell says:

well its nice to see that you are not an aginner. where do you think the solution is. power is already costly and wind is only a minor solution in my book. i hate to see wildlife wasted when an alternative might be available. with nevada being taken off the table as a repository for nuclear waste (one of our safest and also most controversial)where do we go for more affordable and socalled environmentally friendly power. as a kid i remember the wind mill powered battery systems on west texas farms before the coops replaced them with the real deal. openly voiced concerns for wildlife doesn't really serve the situation well without presenting an alternative. you back handedly make a point for more coal AND i would think nuclear as i do not believe the go it alone individual systems will pass the muster of overly regulated residential areas where the demand for power is greatest. most cities thru building codes prevent a practical wind turbine on a residence and many home owners associations likewise prevent solar and wind from becoming a reality in neighborhoods that folks residing in have the most wherewithall to try these units out. i don't have the answer and your complaint about dead avian friends doesn't present one either.

Hi Howell, I think you summarise the problem well. If we take the global warming religion as the consistent underlying idea motivating wind farms, it also motivates the terrible 'carbon sequestration' idea too. Taken as a pair (both of which I oppose), they use more coal than if neither were used. Carbon sequestration requires about 40% more coal; wind farms, even in their wildest dreams, can account for only 20% of energy usage. A government doing both will require about 15% more coal (which probably explains why the Australian mining industry alone is spending over a billion dollars on 'clean energy').

My take on coal: digging it up and burning it is one of the few indisputable charitable acts by humanity for the wildlife of Earth. Carbon that has been processed by life and is now lying useless deep in the rocks is brought out and returned to the atmosphere where it can once again give life to plants and from there, animals. Our reasons as humans for conserving it are all essentially self-serving: one day a future generation might need it more than we do, and if we use it now, it won't be there when needed. Of course the bloody-mindedness of the coal companies digging it out from flourishing wilderness areas or prime farmland, wrecking them in the process, cannot be condoned, and I am active right now in helping an Australian community at Felton fight such a proposal.

So turning to human-centred reasons, I tentatively would prefer nuclear (meaning fission) to coal and oil for this reason: nuclear requires higher technology to carry it off. If for some unforeseen reason humanity ever loses its current level of technology and needs to 'start again' at the bottom, low-tech coal and oil will be required. So as an insurance policy, leaving it in the ground makes sound sense.

The problem with nuclear is that there is uncertainty whether it is in fact economically viable. This matters. Too high a price in effect means that other energy sources are being used to support nuclear. For example, a great amount of energy goes into mining and refining (fissible uranium being very dilute in the ore). Because the free market has been corrupted (governments giving cheap electricity to promote exports, etc.), we simply don't know whether uranium is worth the effort or whether it costs more than it gives. A site I respect very much, greenworldtrust, argues here that it is hopelessly inefficient. On the other hand, claims about new efficient sources of uranium from the ocean would have it that we have a virtually inexhaustible supply, and also that reprocessing can get vastly more energy from the ore than is now the case. Short of investing a great amount of time doing my own analysis, which my circumstances currently prevent, I have to remain agnostic about fission. But we certainly have maybe twenty years in which we can go on using coal while we sort out the other issues.

The other big question is nuclear fusion. The reaction ingredients are all so common as to be basically free, so if a reactor could be developed that had a sufficiently high net power surplus that in its lifetime it could fully pay for its own energy needs during construction, power would at last be almost 'too cheap to meter'. There are two main reactions proposed for practical usage as a fusion power generator, one of which produces no radioactive byproducts whatever. Research for one of them costs about six billion euros, and whilst western governments have been throwing money away 'fighting the recession' (Australia alone burned through many billions), research to find out if we can just forget about deadly wind farms etc., isn't financed. Why? Many writes on the web prognosticate that the real objective is ideological; and control of the populace through energy starvation, rules and regulations, etc., and not any concern for the planet, is driving all this.

How much of this is paranoia, how much justified cynicism? Depending on where you are coming from, I agree it could sound like either. And I have glossed over some important issues such as what is a free market, and why it isn't the same as deregulation. If you know of any cogent analyses of nuclear power that can help the rest of us make up our minds, that would be very useful. The problem is that almost everyone has an axe to grind one way or the other, and so more or less nothing written on the subject can be trusted without verification.

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Re: A Question of Energy

Ok, let's throw something else into the mix - how you use the energy, specifically transport. Some nonsensical (and probably expensive) report recently published in the UK indicated that if we are to maintain our current carbon output from the airline industry then we would have to cut all other carbon emissions by 90% by 2050. This would put us roughly back to the Napoleonic Wars for goodness sake! One of the big trends to help us to this fantastical target now seems to be toward electricy powering our cars, either by hybrid technology or indeed fully electric.

Now... the only way to do this - unlikely to be changed any time soon - is to store the electricity in a battery. Forget about the likelihood that this will probably be charged by electricity from coal fired power stations for a moment and concentrate on batteries for these "green" vehicles. How many people know what they are made of and where these materials come from I wonder? The latest versions are Lithium Ion - like massive laptop batteries - but 50% of all the known reachable Lithium on the planet is sat under the rainforests and mountains of Marxist Bolivia. Is that not swapping one set of despotic controllers of world energy for another, and precipitating yet more environmental damage in the name of saving the environment?

But it doesn't stop there because there are lots of different metals in these batteries and many come under the title of "rare earth elements". For instance some 1.5kg of Lanthanum is used in each battery, a metal so rare it was only discovered in modern times. It expected that battery car production will soon be millions a year - a consumption of thousands of tonnes of rare earth element - just what part of the phrase "rare earth element" are we not getting here? I think somebody tore "sustainability" out of the dictionary when thinking these ideas up and it is obvious this is so much more about business than environmentalism - making the decadent west feel good about themselves so they can preach to poor Africans about why they can't even have a clean source of energy to cook with and have to keep dying at 45 through smoke inhalation.

It's all scam, most people know it's a scam, but we just let them keep scamming us.


Re: A Question of Energy

Hi John,

I wasn't fully conscious to the problem of battery materials until I saw your figures. I must say it is seriously shocking. But OTOH, I have with difficulty reconciled myself to what appears to be a fact: most people in the environmental movement are either more interested in feeling good about the environment than doing good to the environment, or they are using it as a cover to advance a political agenda.

The key point, as you say, must surely be "making the decadent west feel good about themselves". It seems to be a very successful business model to cause real harm to the real poor, provided well-off armchair environmentalists get a big payoff in warm and fuzzies.

I think your last capitalised question is hugely deep. Ian Plimer talks about environmentalism as a religion, and I notice various others in the blogosphere picking up on that theme too. Elsewhere on this site I talk about what I call a false religion. I don't mean a literal religion, more a psychological malfunction humans seem to be prone to, but I think it is far wider than just environmentalism. I would call environmentalism a denomination, if you like, of a far bigger thing. Other writers have noticed that the deep mental structure of communism, feminism, political correctness, environmentalism, postmodernism, etc., is closely similar. There is an in-group and an out-group, someone to love and someone to hate, and the ones being loved don't necessarily benefit from it.

Take environmentalism. In-group: "the planet", animals, the "disadvantaged"; out-group: "Big coal", "business", westerners driving SUVs or taking plane trips, and so on. And so they build animal-killing wind farms, devise "clean" coal power stations that result in 40% more coal being dug up (more profit to Big Coal) and wrecking the environment around the coal mines, and so on. Self-sabotage on a massive scale. Only a propensity on the part of humans in general to think irrationally can explain it.

So I think the "why" is dimly discernible. The "what on earth can we do about it" is the harder question. I don't think calm, rational talk is the answer (although it is for sure necessary). The deep emotive causes must be tackled in their own right, which involves putting the argument emotively. Where we must differ from the hoaxsters is that we must put the truth, not falsehood, into a form that engages with the emotional centres in the psyche. I try to do that on our other website,, where Gitie and I tell stories - each and every one absolutely true - that help people see the love and feelings of animals. And here, I want to explain why fighting irrationality is absolutely needed for the welfare of humans and animals.

There is a lot more to this than I have understood, I am sure. At some point we need to find a way to put together all the collective understanding of those of us who have not succumbed to the irrational. Somewhere in all this there must surely be a way forward.

Re: A Question of Energy

Hi Ron,
The information about clean coal using 40% more coal had escaped me, this is why we need to talk to each other because there is so much BS flying around out there it is hard to keep track of it all. I've seen a copy (but unfortunately haven't actually got a copy to disseminate) of a paper here in the UK that states we could be self sufficient in energy based on coal as it could produce coal gas to bolster our dwindling natural gas supplies and also diesel to run our cars - as well as firing our power stations of course. Problem is a good portion of the country would soon be a giant open cast mine as all the deep mines are now irrecoverable because of short sightedness during the 80s and the rush to nuclear for political ends (not followed up by any investment so now both our coal and nuclear facilities will have to be shut before new ones can be built in time to stop the lights going out - 2015 is going to be a great time to be British, not!).
I've now also seem research that suggests virtually unlimited deposits of oil may lie away from recognised oil bearing areas because it has been discovered that geological forces at extreme depths - over 10km - can actually create oil from general hydrocarbons in the rock strata and not just fossilised organisms. Wonder what the chances are of exploiting this potential new energy source until AGW is put to bed?
Seems to me we don't need to rush headlong into poorly thought out replacements for fossil fuels as there is enough around that will become available as technology develops (after all we have been at the "40 years of oil left" mark for the last 45 years!) and that gives us time to develop a mix of renewables, the smart grids that will be needed to distribute the electricity, and continue to research nuclear fusion as a base load power source for the 22nd century.
These could be thrilling times we live in if we weren't influenced by such a bunch of luddite idiots. I fear for science in this politicised environment, it is becoming every bit as endangered as it was during the Dark Ages - it is just a different type of religion stifling it this time.

Re: A Question of Energy

i think clean energy is important, but not at the cost of natural beauty, a lot of alternative energies take up a lot of space on beaches or other areas that are really beautiful to visit.