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.

Comments

  1. #1 jeebus
    May 26, 2011

    I love this comment that suggests that wind farms can somehow significantly affect weather patterns:

    If the Coal and Oil use was responsible for Katrina, could the wind farms in Texas west to California be partially responsible for the severe increase in Tornados this year? Are those generators responsible for the damage to Joplin yesterday? Got a computer program to prove your point? I’d like to see it…..

  2. #2 george.w
    May 26, 2011

    Let me get this straight: oil, coal and uranium, though non-renewable, will never run out because they have not run out. But rare earth elements, though non-renewable, will run out if we build too many windmills. It’s all so confusing…

    Of course, windmill magnets aren’t used up; a 100-year-old windmill magnet has just as many atoms of neodymium and dysprosium as a new one.

  3. #3 Duke
    May 26, 2011

    I know, right? There’s no “faith” in the scientific community, or at least when there uis, it’s the right kind!

    And this type of attitude, and sneering against those who disagree with you, is likely to make more people come to your point of view!

    Good point, guys!

  4. #4 Ken
    May 26, 2011

    If the Coal and Oil use was responsible for Katrina, could the wind farms in Texas west to California be partially responsible for the severe increase in Tornados this year?

    WINDMILLS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY!

    Kneel before Morbo, puny Earthlings.

  5. #5 dmabs
    May 29, 2011

    Sunday Sacrilege pz’s blaspheming head

    debunkingskeptics.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=1756

  6. #6 MikeB
    May 30, 2011

    Ridley mentioned guano, which is pretty much the word that came to mind when I read that dreck. His confusion about what is ‘renewable’ would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

    The really amazing thing is that serious people pay good money for the WSJ to stay informed, so what must they think when they read stuff like this? Stop getting the WSJ might be one of them…

  7. #7 Wow
    June 1, 2011

    “And this type of attitude, and sneering”

    Is completely acceptable when the people you’re responding to are idiots by their own words.

    “against those who disagree with you”

    No, only if the disagreement is stated by an idiotic statement.

  8. #8 bob
    June 8, 2011

    i think we have to be careful about what we mean by sustainable. The cod fishery was, and could have remained,sustainable-but we we overfished to the extent that the ecology changed.

    Sustainable does not mean “ok to rape”.

  9. #9 Dan Olner
    June 29, 2011

    “Sustainable does not mean ‘ok to rape’.”

    Indeed: seems like some people think ‘sustainable’ is a quality intrinsic to certain things, that others lack – rather than a concept for defining whether people are using stuff in a way that will allow them to carry on doing so into the future.

    Wow, that was a horrible sentence. Also: george w:

    ‘Let me get this straight: oil, coal and uranium, though non-renewable, will never run out because they have not run out. But rare earth elements, though non-renewable, will run out if we build too many windmills.’

    Genius.

  10. #10 Wow
    June 29, 2011

    “Wow, that was a horrible sentence.”

    Well, it really should have been a semicolon since I quoted in the middle, but what the heck. This isn’t an Eng Lit class.

    Anything other than horribleness wrong with it, though?

    I mean, if some dumbass comes up with a dumbass statement, you CAN call them a dumbass and be 100% correct. You can even say their comment was dumbass and still be correct. Even though calling someone dumbass is sneering.

    Thomas Jefferson : Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them;

    If you prefer.

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