Our energy supply: some basics

by Gail Tverberg

If a person were to listen to Energy Secretary Steven Chu or National Geographic’s Aftermath: World Without Oil, one might think that our energy problems are fairly minor and distant. We can easily add sufficiently renewable energy to substitute for fossil fuels in a fairly short time frame. All we need to do is put our minds (and pocketbooks) to it.

Even though wind, solar photovoltaic (PV), geothermal, and ethanol are called “renewables”, they cannot be produced without fossil fuels, and need fossil fuels for maintenance.

In many ways, these energy sources should be called “fossil fuel extenders” rather than renewables, because they are very dependent on our current system. For example, growing corn for ethanol depends on tractors run by diesel for growing the corn, and natural gas or coal to power the ethanol plant. Corn is fertilized using fertilizers which are often imported, and sprayed with oil-based insecticides. Wind turbines require regular maintenance, and need to be part of an operating electrical system with fossil fuel back-ups. Solar PV will continue to make electricity once they have been made, but will not produce round-the-clock electricity unless they are part of an electrical system (which requires fossil fuels) or have battery backups which are replaced every few years (also requiring fossil fuels).


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