The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: We Owe Civilization to Fossil Fuels
By Bryan Caplan
According to this popular cartoon, getting rid of fossil fuels is a free lunch.
The wise will roll their eyes at this wishful thinking. But no one exposes its sheer absurdity better than Alex Epstein in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. You cannot have modern civilization without abundant energy. And despite decades of government favoritism, alternative fuels have yet to deliver. As global wealth has skyrocketed, energy use has risen 80%, thanks almost entirely to increased production of fossil fuels:
the 1970s to the present, fossil fuels have overwhelmingly been the
fuel of choice, particularly for developing countries. In the United
States between 1980 and 2012, the consumption of oil increased 8.7
percent, the consumption of natural gas increased 28.3 percent, and the
consumption of coal increased 12.6 percent. During that time period, the
world overall increased fossil fuel usage far more than we did. Today
the world uses 39 percent more oil, 107 percent more coal, and 131
percent more natural gas than it did in 1980.
Haven’t alternative fuels played a big role, too? No.
Solar and wind are a
minuscule portion of world energy use. And even that is misleading
because fossil fuel energy is reliable whereas solar and wind aren’t.
While energy from, say, coal is available on demand so you can keep a
refrigerator–or a respirator– on whenever you need it, solar energy is
available only when the sun shines and the clouds cooperate, which
means it can work only if it’s combined with a reliable source of
energy, such as coal, gas, nuclear, or hydro.
Why did fossil fuel
energy outcompete renewable energy– not just for existing energy
production but for most new energy production? This trend is too
consistent across too many countries to be ignored. The answer is simply
that renewable energy couldn’t meet those countries’ energy needs,
though fossil fuels could. While many countries wanted solar and wind,
and in fact used a lot of their citizens ‘ money to prop up solar and
wind companies, no one could figure out a cost-effective, scalable
process to take sunlight and wind, which are dilute and intermittent
forms of energy, and turn them into cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.
What’s so deficient about solar and wind?
Traditionally in discussions of solar and wind there are two problems cited: the diluteness problem and the intermittency problem. The diluteness problem is that the sun and the wind don’t deliver concentrated energy, which means you need a lot of materials per unit of energy produced…
Such resource requirements are a big cost problem, to be sure, and would be one even if the sun shone all the time and the wind blew all the time. But it’s an even bigger problem that the sun and wind don’t work that way. That’s the real problem– the intermittency problem, or more colloquially, the unreliability problem. As we saw in the Gambian hospital, it is of life and death importance that energy be reliable. There are some situations where it isn’t, to be sure, and solar has a place there– such as solar hot water heaters or swimming pool heating systems. But for just about everything we do, reliable, on-demand energy is vital–and without it, our electricity grid blacks out.
But aren’t some countries like Germany making solar and wind work? Not really:
How, then, can so many say that solar or wind generates over 50 percent of Germany’s energy? What they are referring to is the fact that because solar and wind are so variable, at any given moment solar can generate 50 percent of the electricity being used. It can also generate 0 percent of the electricity generated at any given moment…
As you look at the jagged and woefully insufficient bursts of electricity from solar and wind, remember this: some reliable source of energy needed to do the heavy lifting. In the case of Germany, much of that energy is coal. As Germany has paid tens of billions of dollars to subsidize solar panels and windmills, fossil fuel capacity, especially coal, has not been shut down– it has increased…
In a given week in Germany, the world leader in solar and number three in wind, their solar panels and windmills may generate less than 5 percent of needed electricity. What happens then? Reliable sources of energy, in Germany’s case coal, have to produce more electricity. For various technical reasons, this is even more inefficient than it sounds. For example, because the reliable sources have to move up and down quickly to adjust to the whims of the sunlight and wind, they become inefficient– just like your car in stop-and-go-traffic– which means more energy use and incidentally more emissions (including CO2). And what about when there’s a particularly large amount of sunlight or wind? For an electric grid, too much electricity will cause a blackout just as too little will– so then Germany has to shut down its coal plants and be ready to start them up again (more stop and go). In practice they often have so much excess that they have to pay other countries to take their electricity– which requires the other countries to inefficiently decelerate their reliable power plants to accommodate the influx. This is obviously not scalable; if everyone’s electrical generation was as unreliable as Germany’s, there would be no one to absorb their peaks.
The only way for solar and wind to be truly useful, reliable sources of energy would be to combine them with some form of extremely inexpensive mass-storage system. No such mass-storage system exists, because storing energy in a compact space itself takes a lot of resources. Which is why, in the entire world, there is not one real or proposed independent, freestanding solar or wind power plant. All of them require backup –except that “backup” implies that solar and wind work most of the time. It’s more accurate to say that solar and wind are parasites that require a host.
Of course, none of this refutes claims about fossil fuels’ deadly side effects. But it does put all the kvetching in perspective. Maybe the best paragraph in the book:
[A] proper reaction to a major danger from fossil fuels would be sorrow. Think about it: If the energy that runs our civilization has a tragic flaw, that is a terribly sad thing. It would be even worse, say, than if wireless technology caused brain cancer. The appropriate attitude would be gratitude toward the fossil fuel companies for what they had done for us, combined with recognition that we would have to suffer a lot in the years ahead, combined with the commitment to the best technologies that I mentioned earlier [hydro and nuclear].
If anyone can turn this passage into a great cartoon, I’ll be delighted to post it.