Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Renewables do not require a fossil fuel subsidy

Recently I was reading the comments at the excellent blog, do the math, when I found this claim:

"Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply."

This claim is similar to the "fossil fuel subsidy" argument, which crops up very frequently in peak oil forums. Basically, the argument is that renewables are "subsidized" by fossil fuels, because renewables are built using energy from fossil fuels. For example, windmills require coal to smelt the iron ore, to extract aluminum from their oxides, and so on. So it could be said that windmills were "subsidized" by coal, and could not have existed independently.

The argument is incorrect. While it is true that the first generation of rewnewable plants would have a "coal subsidy", any subsequent power plants would have a "renewable subsidy". That is because we build everything using the prior energy source. Once renewables are established, we will use them to smelt ores, extract aluminum oxides, manufacture parts for renewable plants, and so on. Thus we do not have a permanent fossil fuel subsidy; instead, we have a fossil fuel ladder, which we use and then kick away.

The transition from coal "subsidy" to renewable "subsidy" will happen automatically, as a result of basic market mechanisms. When renewable electricity and heat are cheaper and more prevalent than coal, they will also be cheaper sources of energy to manufacture subsequent power plants.

Of course, the transition away from the coal "subsidy" will not happen all at once. What really will happen, is that the first renewable plant will have a 100% coal subsidy for its construction, then each additional renewable plant will have a declining coal subsidy and increasing renewable subsidy, until the coal subsidy reaches zero.

As an example, look at early industrialism. The energy for early industrialism came from British coal. British coal “subsidized” the subsequent energy sources, even those in the USA. Does that mean we can never transition away from British coal? Does that mean all power is subsidized by British coal? Why didn’t civilization collapse as British coal declined?

Here is another example. The initial metals for early industrialism were smelted using charcoal, from WOOD. Thus, coal had a “charcoal subsidy”. Does it still have a charcoal subsidy? Do all subsequent power sources also have a charcoal subsidy? What about the subsequent nuclear plants? Do they have a charcoal subsidy? No. Charcoal was the first step; it provided a subsidy once.

Of course there is also the issue of oil. Oil subsidizes renewables because oil is used to power the mining machinery. However, even oil is replaceable with renewables. We can substitute batteries, or can manufacture hydrocarbons using the fischer-tropsch process. At some point this will be cheaper than diesel fuel from oil, because diesel fuel will become more expensive and batteries less expensive.

The "subsidy" argument has already repeatedly failed in the past. Every source of energy was subsidized by the prior one. Coal was originally subsidized by WOOD (charcoal) because steam engines originally ran using wood. Oil extraction was subsidized by coal, because the components of early oil wells were manufactured using coal. Natural gas was subsidized by oil and coal. Nuclear power was subsidized by coal and oil. At present, in France, about 5 million cars per year are manufactured which have a nuclear subsidy, because part of the energy for their manufacture came from nuclear power plants. In this case, a fossil fuel-burning engine has a nuclear subsidy.

Does this mean it's impossible to transition from one energy source to another? No. We have already transitioned between energy sources, repeatedly, despite subsidies. The subsidy is temporary.

In conclusion. Fossil fuels are not necessary for any purpose. They were a cheap and easy first step; that is all. Fossil fuels are like a ladder we used to climb upwards to industrial civilization, but now we could kick the ladder away.