OK. Taking on logical flaws in Wall Street Journal op-ed items is about as difficult as shooting fish in a barrel, but I can’t let Matt Ridley’s latest affront to common sense pass without firing off a few rounds — for practice if nothing else.
Under a staggeringly unimaginative headline of “Inconvenient Truths About ‘Renewable’ Energy,” Ridley argues that renewable energy isn’t really renewable, or at least no more renewable that fossil fuels. How does he go about this without shattering his backbone? By pointing out that Haitians are destroying their half of their island home by cutting down supposedly renewable trees at an unsustainable rate, for starters.
Right. Wood isn’t renewable because some of the poorest people on the planet can’t afford to engage in responsible silviculture. But it gets worse:
The wind may never stop blowing, but the wind industry depends on steel, concrete and rare-earth metals (for the turbine magnets), none of which are renewable. Wind generates 0.2% of the world’s energy at present. Assuming that energy needs double in coming decades, we would have to build 100 times as many wind farms as we have today just to get to a paltry 10% from wind. We’d run out of non-renewable places to put them.
You may think I’m splitting hairs. Iron ore for making steel is unlikely to run out any time soon. True, but you can say the same about fossil fuels. The hydrocarbons in the earth’s crust amount to more than 500,000 exajoules of energy. (This includes methane clathrates–gas on the ocean floor in solid, ice-like form–which may or may not be accessible as fuel someday.) The whole planet uses about 500 exajoules a year, so there may be a millennium’s worth of hydrocarbons left at current rates.
(And what do you burn apart from witches?)
Hmm. Maybe apples and oranges aren’t the right metaphorical examples. More like apples and anvils.
The good news is that the comments that poured into the WSJ’s servers pretty much tell the story. Some take the form of the usual uncritical fan mail. But enough readers have the brains to point out that there is a rather significant difference between capital and operating expenses, concepts that are probably relatively well understood among WSJ subscribers, I should think.
(But can you not also build bridges out of stone?)
But wait, there more of what Joe Romm might call head-vise-appropriate literature:
Contrast that with blue whales, cod and passenger pigeons, all of which plainly renew themselves by breeding. But exploiting them caused their populations to collapse or disappear in just a few short decades. It’s a startling fact that such “renewable” resources keep running short, while no non-renewable resource has yet run out: not oil, gold, uranium or phosphate.
That’s right. It hasn’t happened yet, so it never will. Brilliant. Why didn’t I think of that? The economics of past extinctions are irrelevant and so … logically … we don’t ever have to worry about EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) either.
(But she’s a witch. She turned me into a newt!)
Come to think of it, maybe the irony of an essay so completely bereft of an understanding of fundamental economic principles appearing in the country’s leading business newspaper is remarkable after all. But wait. We’re talking about a paper whose op-ed editors have already demonstrated an utter lack of respect for the physical sciences.
Never mind. I take that back.